A pair of Sarasota legislative races saw major changes over the weekend. Rep. Ray Pilon decided to forgo a 2016 re-election bid for a fourth term in the House in favor of a Senate campaign, leaving his Democratic opponent Edward James running unopposed in a coastal swing seat.
Pilon said Tuesday his decision came from the resolution of Senate maps and local considerations. Sarasota Republican Party chair Joe Gruters declared publicly last year Pilon would not seek the seat when rumors first emerged, but Pilon says that contradicted his camp’s internal thinking.
“We were honestly contemplating it [then],” said Pilon. “We saw what the maps were, took time to explore it and network it and made our decision.”
Pilon expressed confidence he would have beaten James had he remained in the HD 72 race, though since the initial Senate rumors James has proven a more viable House challenger than many expected.
Since filing last summer James has amassed $243,222 overall – $166,650 of that coming through an affiliated committee which added $50,000 in February – far more than any previous Democratic opponent had raised at this point in the cycle.
Pilon has broken with House leadership on a number of issues in recent years, including “open carry” legislation and a Senate-driven plan to expand Medicaid under the federal Affordable Care Act. That could be attributed to both his interest in the Senate and the concerns of his moderate district, Pilon said.
“I try to put the people I represent before politics, which is often difficult to do. But I have succeeded,” said Pilon, who is set to term out in 2018.
He added, however: “With my last two years in the House, with the way they’re going, I felt I could accomplish more of the things I wanted to accomplish in a smaller body.”
The third-term legislator said he would file paperwork for the seat by next week and that he was always serious about a Senate run, even signing a pledge card for Sen. Jack Latvala‘s now-defunct Senate presidency bid.
Pilon also expressed confidence Republicans would recruit a competitive candidate to defeat James and keep the seat in the ‘R’ column.
James, meanwhile, said Pilon’s exit puts him in a strong position to succeed him in the district.
“I want to thank Representative Pilon for his service to Sarasota, ” said James. “As our next representative, I’ll make sure Sarasota continues to have a strong voice in Tallahassee.”
When asked if the move makes James the “presumptive” winner, he said he would avoid using that term.
“But I will say that with no opponent, it would certainly appear we are in a position to serve the community in an official capacity,” said James, adding he does not intend to slow down on the campaign trail.
“With an opponent or without an opponent, we still believe that folks in Sarasota deserve to find out why a new direction is going to help the district and the state of Florida move forward,” James said in a nod to his “New Direction” committee and campaign mantra.
“So we’re still going to be out there campaigning, we’re still going to be knocking on doors and still talking to voters. So if folks haven’t seen us out in the community yet, they certainly will,” said James.