Dennis Baxley won the first round against Jimmie Smith in the race to replace Charlie Dean in the Florida Senate as the two House Republicans continue to jockey for position in 2016.
Baxley had a huge February as he kicked off his Senate bid, hauling in $79,500 and bringing his total raised to $89,610. Smith simply did not keep up. In February, Smith raised $13,850 but spent most of that, going through $10,126 and leaving his campaign with less than $7,600 in the bank. Thats chump change compared to Baxleys account which has $74,800.
Back in 2007, Baxley lost to Dean by 12 percent in the special primary needed when Nancy Argenziano joined the PSC. But hes in a far better position this time out. Baxley had been speaker pro tempore under Marco Rubio, giving up his seat to run for the Senate. Despite having been in the leadership, Baxley had no problem going back to basics. After Kurt Kelly, who replaced him in the House, decided to run for Congress in 2010, Baxley ran for his old seat and the Ocala Republican won it with ease. Now the chairman of the Local and Federal Affairs Committee, Baxley is one of the leading conservatives in the House -- no surprise, considering he led the Florida Christian Coalition at one point.
But Smith has done the impossible before. A 20-year Army veteran who chairs the Veteran and Military Affairs Subcommittee, Smith beat Ron Schultz in the Republican primary in 2010. He is one of the few recent examples of a challenger beating a legislative incumbent in the primaries.
Two years later, Smith claimed a win over another big name when he beat Argenziano who gave up her PSC spot to endorse Alex Sink over Rick Scott in 2010 and was running with no party affiliation. Like Baxley, Smith has been a solid conservative in the House including being the point man on the bill to drug test state employees.
The Republican candidates will need to hold onto their cash and Smith simply cant afford that kind of burn rate. This is a big district and candidates will have to spend in multiple markets. It includes Baker County, just to the west of Jacksonville, and wraps around the central part of North Florida, picking up Lake City and avoiding Gainesville, down to Smiths base of Citrus County on the Gulf Coast. Smith loses the Hernando County part of his district while Baxley will have to hope his base in Ocala -- the western part of Marion County is part of the district -- can give him leverage in other parts of the district.
Its not an easy district to run in and theres plenty of room for other Republican candidates in this conservative region. But right now, Baxley is the man to beat and he handily beat Smith in the first round of this race.
Tallahassee-based political writer Jeff Henderson wrote this analysis exclusively for Sunshine State News.