Joe Saunders has the Edge in HD 49, Despite New Opponent

By: Jeff Henderson | Posted: April 2, 2014 3:55 AM
Joe Saunders

Joe Saunders

Joe Saunders drew a major Republican opponent this week as he looks to run for a second term in the Florida House in November. 

Jesse Phillips, who headed a legal watchdog group, Restore Justice, and led unsuccessful efforts against retaining three Florida Supreme Court justices back in 2012, filed to run as a Republican against Saunders this week.

With Full Sail University, the University of Central Florida and Valencia Community College East all in the Orange County district, Phillips focused on the issues of young Floridians as he kicked off his campaign this week.

“I am running for office to move Florida forward,” Phillips said. “The actual youth unemployment rate is 15.8 percent; the average UCF student graduates with $20,000 in debt; and insurance costs have increased by 39 percent for individuals and 56 percent for families since February 2013. I am concerned that if this becomes the new norm, the innovation and potential of the millennial generation will be stifled by chronically low expectations. The time-tested principles of limited government and personal responsibility, while being in sharp contrast to the Democrats’ failed policies, will move Florida forward and improve the lives of its diverse citizens.”

But Phillips could have an uphill climb after Saunders won in an impressive fashion back in 2012 and Democrats have a decided advantage in voter registration in the district.  

Despite being a freshman, Saunders has proven to be a political pro. The Orange County Democrat gained some political experience during his time with Equality Florida but he turned his eyes to running for elected office in 2012, setting his sights on the House seat Darren Soto was leaving as he ran for the Senate. After a contested primary with attorney Shayan Elahi, who spent more than $60,000, Saunders moved on to the general election to take on Republican Marco Pena, an executive at Florida Hospital.

Despite it being a strong Democratic district, Republicans thought the world of Pena. By the time the dust had settled, Pena spent more than $239,700 and relied on almost $143,000 of in-kind donations. Saunders spent almost $222,900 and went through almost $43,000 of in-kind donations.

Saunders went on to win in impressive fashion. When all was said and done, Saunders won with 56 percent while Pena mustered 44 percent. Still in his early 30s, Pena isn’t done and he ended up on the Orlando-Orange County Expressway Authority board last year. But Saunders, who turns 31 this month, shouldn’t expect a rematch from his old foe. Instead, Saunders can look forward to what should be a quiet contest for his second term.

Philips will face a primary contest as fellow Republican Edward Nelson Rodriguez got in the race back in August. Rodriguez has some interesting credentials including working in the private sector and serving in the Army and in law enforcement. Conservatives should like Rodriguez’s stances, including being a staunch defender of the Second Amendment. But Rodriguez has never had much luck when he’s run for office, whether against Queens Democrat Gary Ackerman for Congress up in New York back in 1986 or in Orange County. Rodriguez has done almost next to nothing in terms of fundraising despite loaning his campaign $5,000 when he started his efforts.

Saunders has been busy raising money and he is picking up the pace. By the end of February, he raised more than $101,650 and spent around $5,060 of that. Prohibited by law from raising money during the session, Saunders increased the pace of his fundraising in February, raising more than $20,000 in that month.

Even with Phillips jumping in, Saunders has the clear edge here due to his fundraising advantage and the Democratic-leaning nature of his district. Phillips could certainly change the dynamic here but Saunders starts this race with a clear advantage.

Tallahassee political writer Jeff Henderson wrote this analysis piece exclusively for Sunshine State News.

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