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Trio of Open-Seat Races on the Horizon in Florida

While Florida Democrats and Republicans focus on paring down the burgeoning fields of candidates interested in succeeding term-limited Gov. Jeb Bush (R) and brace for bruising statewide contests in 2006, a trio of competitive open-seat House contests are also on the horizon.

The Sunshine State’s 9th, 11th and 13th districts are considered likely to be vacated because their current occupants are looking toward either retirement or higher office. All three seats are centered in the Tampa area on the state’s Gulf Coast.

In the 9th, considered to be the most competitive of the three seats, 74-year-old Rep. Mike Bilirakis (R) has said that he does not intend to run for a 13th term in 2006. His son, Gus, a Member of the state House, is expected to run for the seat.

The younger Bilirakis, 41, a one-time aide to then-Rep. Don Sundquist (R-Tenn.) and a former staffer at the National Republican Congressional Committee, was elected to the state Legislature in 1998.

He and his father both got a scare on Election Day in 2002, although it wasn’t at the polls. A car careened out of control and hit the younger Bilirakis as he and his father were waving to passing vehicles at a local intersection. Gus Bilirakis did not suffer major injuries and was released from the hospital in time to make the father-son joint victory party that night.

While Gus Bilirakis will likely be considered the early favorite to succeed his father, a blockbuster GOP primary could unfold if former state House Speaker Johnnie Byrd (R) also enters the race.

Byrd, who ran for Senate in 2004 and placed fourth in the GOP primary, has long had his eye on the Bilirakis seat and had a hand in making sure his Plant City home was drawn into the 9th district during the last round of redistricting.

Byrd is also looking at possibly running statewide in 2006.

If Byrd runs for Congress, he is likely to get the backing of the conservative, anti-tax Club for Growth, which could help divert key resources to his campaign. The Washington, D.C.-based organization endorsed Byrd in last year’s Senate race but did little more on his behalf.

“If it happens, it’s going to be a shootout,” one GOP operative familiar with Florida politics said, referring to the Gus Bilirakis/Byrd primary. “Byrd knows if he loses that he’s done.”

Another potential GOP candidate in the 9th is former state Sen. Jack Latvala, although he is also mentioned as a possible candidate in the 10th district, whenever Rep. Bill Young (R) retires.

While Democrats salivate at the thought of Young’s retirement from the Democratic-leaning 10th, in the meantime they have also pegged the 9th district as a golden pick-up opportunity. While Congressman Bilirakis has easily been re-elected since winning the seat in 1982, party strategists claim that the district only marginally favors Republicans.

“With the prospect of a nasty Republican primary and a very solid Democratic performance in the 9th district, we think this has the real chance of becoming a strong pick-up opportunity for us,” said DCCC spokesman Greg Speed.

Democrats have their sights set on recruiting former Pasco County Superintendent of Schools John Long, who party officials say has expressed some interest in running.

Long, 58, retired as superintendent last year after holding the office for eight years. Previously he served as a state Representative from 1986 to 1994.

“The public education champion helped transform the Pasco district into one of the best and most efficiently run in Florida,” the Tampa Tribune wrote in an editorial praising Long in November 2004. “He battled state funding cuts and helped blocked the Legislature from abolishing impact fees for public education in 2000.”

National Republican Congressional Committee spokesman Carl Forti brushed off the assertion that the seat is vulnerable to a Democratic takeover.

“Democrats have claimed for three cycles now that they can win open seats,” Forti said. “Up to this point they have failed miserably. That’s why they continue to be in the minority and this seat is no different.”

One seat that Democrats don’t have to worry about controlling is the neighboring Tampa-based 11th district, currently held by Rep. Jim Davis (D). Davis, first elected in 1996, is seriously considering a run for governor.

Among the heaviest hitters interested in replacing Davis in the heavily Democratic seat are Hillsborough County Commissioner Kathy Castor (D), state Rep. Bob Henriquez (D) and state Sen. Les Miller (D).

Democratic names mentioned are wealthy businessman and former Tampa mayoral candidate Frank Sanchez and attorney Scott Farell.

Castor is the daughter of 2004 Democratic Senate nominee Betty Castor (D), who was narrowly defeated by now-Sen. Mel Martinez (R). Betty Castor, a former state education commissioner, is weighing a gubernatorial run in 2006.

Henriquez, a Princeton University graduate who goes by the name “Coach,” has served in the Legislature since 1998. When he’s not legislating, the 40-year-old is an assistant coach of a local Tampa high school football team. The team fell one win short of a state championship in 2004.

Miller, who is black, serves as the Democratic leader in the Senate. He is a former member of the Tampa City Council and the husband of current Tampa City Councilmember Gwen Miller.

Miller, 53, also did a stint as Democratic leader in the state House, where he served from 1992 until his election to the state Senate in 2000.

In the Sarasota-based 13th district, which could become vacant if Rep. Katherine Harris (R) decides to challenge first-term Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.) in 2006, the Democratic bench isn’t nearly as deep.

Despite spending more than $3 million on her past two campaigns, Harris garnered just 55 percent of the vote both times in a district that appears to solidly favor Republicans. Her performance gives Democrats some hope for a competitive open-seat race, but they have yet to find a top-tier recruit.

Among the Democrats considered likely to run in an open-seat scenario are former banking executive Christine Jennings, who was favored by national party leaders to take on Harris in 2004. But Jennings failed to get past attorney and 2002 nominee Jan Schneider in the Democratic primary.

Schneider has also expressed interest in running again.

On the Republican side, former Sarasota County Republican Chairman Tramm Hudson and auto dealer Vern Buchanan are among those considering bids if Harris runs for Senate.

Hudson, who just ended a six-year stint as county GOP chairman, is a close ally of former Rep. Dan Miller (R), who held the seat from 1992 through 2002.

Still, he lost a bid to become state committeeman last year, which has led some Republicans to question whether he can win a GOP primary if he couldn’t win over hard-core Republicans in the committeeman race.

Buchanan is the president and CEO of Sarasota-based Buchanan Automotive Group and the chairman of the Florida Chamber of Commerce.

He is a major GOP donor (he recently gave $100,000 to the Presidential Inaugural Committee) and he served as Martinez’s finance chairman during his 2004 Senate campaign.

Both Hudson and Buchanan considered running for the 13th district seat when Miller retired in 2002 but deferred to Harris, the high-profile former Florida secretary of state.

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