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Politics

Cliff Stearns Faces Four-Way GOP Primary in Redrawn Congressional District

February 19, 2012 - 6:00pm

Drawn out of his current district, U.S. Rep. Cliff Stearns still figures to have an advantage in his re-election run this year.

Just don't tell that to fellow Republicans trying to knock him out in the party primary.

With 12 terms in office and $2.38 million in the bank, the veteran GOP congressman has the power of incumbency and money behind him.

And though his Ocala home is now south and east of the newly designed 3rd Congressional District, nearly 70 percent of his old district remains within the new CD 3.

The first congressman in Florida to qualify for the ballot by petition this year, Stearns said he supports the look of the new district and is shopping for a home there.

While District 3 includes western Marion County, it does not include Ocala which was divided into two congressional districts 10 years ago," Stearns notes. "Im pleased that the new maps finally put the city back into one district, something that both the city and I encouraged the Legislature to do.

But the new district -- which stretches to the Georgia border and encompasses all or parts of Dixie, Levy, Gilchrist, Lafayette, Suwannee, Columbia, Hamilton, Madison, Union, Bradford, Clay, Alachua and Marion counties -- has opened the door for other Republicans to challenge Stearns.

State Sen. Steve Oelrich, R-Gainesville, benefits from the new boundaries, which embrace 63 percent of his current district.

Seven of the counties in CD 3 lie within Oelrich's current district. The largest of them, Alachua County, is Oelrich's home, where he was elected the first Republican sheriff since Reconstruction and served 14 years.

He has since been elected twice to the state Senate, where he has taken tough conservative stands on issues ranging from the budget to illegal immigration.

And knocking down persistent rumors that he would bow out of the race in deference to Stearns -- who won re-election with 71 percent of the vote in 2010 -- Oelrich declared, I will campaign in every county, city and community throughout North Central Florida."

Still, the rumors persist. One well-connected GOP consultant, who declined to be identified by name, predicted, "Oelrich will not run against Stearns. This will end up being a fairly easy win for Stearns."

At least two other Republicans -- veterinarian Ted Yoho and Clay County Clerk of Courts James Jett -- appear to be in for the long haul.

Yoho, the first resident of the district to enter the race, sounds an outsider's tone, saying, As a small-business owner and large-animal veterinarian, I have a different perspective than the career politicians.

"Unlike the entrenched politician, I have been in the trenches on a daily basis for the last 28 years. Like too many Americans, I have been on the receiving end of the garbage legislation coming out of Washington, the first-time office seeker said. "We need more business sense and common sense in Washington, and that's what I can bring."

Zeroing in on Stearns, Yoho said, "After a quarter century in Congress, he has failed to chair a major committee. He's done too little, too late."

Jett has been Clay County's clerk of courts since 1998 and was a three-term Clay County commissioner before that.

While Yoho and Oelrich see Gainesville and Alachua as their power base, Jett is more geographically remote, living and working on the far eastern edge of the district.

Still, strongly Republican Clay County accounts for a sizable share of CD 3's GOP voters -- and that could work to Jett's advantage.

Jett did not respond to repeated phone calls from Sunshine State News.

In an era of anti-incumbent sentiment, Yoho could get traction against three longtime officeholders.

"Ted Yoho more closely represents the values of the tea party," said Paula Helton, of the Gainesville Tea Party.

Though her group does not endorse candidates, Helton said Yoho "shares tea party values of limited government and fiscal responsibility. He will bring a fresh perspective to Washington with his experience in actually running a small business."

Whoever emerges from the August primary, the district --which is 59 percent Republican --looks to be a GOP stronghold for years to come.

Some Stearns' skeptics wonder what voters in the new district will think of his now-defunct pledge to serve only eight years in Congress.

Stearns maintains that his Capitol Hill experience has benefited constituents, and believes it will naturally carry over to the new district.

I look forward to the opportunity to continue to represent the University of Florida, Santa Fe College and the Veterans Hospital in Gainesville, the congressman said.

As a senior member of the House Veterans Affairs Committee, Stearns was instrumental in securing support for the construction of the new VA Patient Bed Tower in Gainesville.

I also look forward to building a strong relationship with the VA Medical Center in Lake City and its health-care professionals," Stearns said.

To bolster his primary bid, Stearns is bringing in House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, on March 2 to speak at a campaign reception in Orange Park.

"Stearns will have money and discipline. Oelrich will have more heat. Advantage, Cliff -- but don't write off Oelrich due to the tweaks in the district," said a Tallahassee-based GOP strategist, speaking on condition of anonymity.

Geoff Ross, a tea party leader, applauded Stearns for being "strong on the Second Amendment with the passing of his Right to Carry Reciprocity Act."

But Ross said former Sheriff Oelrich "has a stronger following" in the new district, and called him "a powerful force to reckon with."

Contact Kenric Ward at kward@sunshinestatenews.com or at (772) 801-5341.

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