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GOP Candidates Square Off in Panhandle Stronghold

August 20, 2014 - 6:00pm

With state Rep. Jimmy Patronis, R-Panama City, leaving office this fall due to term limits, six candidates have lined up to represent his Northwest Florida district.

But while a Democrat and a Green Party member are among those vying for the seat, the winner of a four-candidate Republican primary Tuesday will almost certainly win the November general election to replace Patronis in House District 6.

The district, which covers southern Bay County, Panama City and Tyndall Air Force Base, votes overwhelmingly Republican: 70 percent for GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney in 2012 and nearly 66 percent for then-gubernatorial candidate Rick Scott in 2010.

"I feel like there'll be a good, strong Republican nominee," Patronis said. "And whoever that is, I'll be doing everything I can to help them win."

The GOP candidates are Tho Bishop, 24, a former deputy communications director for the U.S. House Financial Services Committee; Melissa Hagan, 45, a former development officer at Gulf Coast State College who runs a business connecting military veterans with jobs; Thelma Rohan, 68, a retired nurse, former school board member and longtime party official; and Jay Trumbull, a 25-year-old businessman who, as of earlier this month, had raised more money than all the others put together.

Campaign-finance records show that Trumbull has received money from influential businesses and groups such as The St. Joe Co., the Florida Medical Association, TECO Energy, AT&T, Bank of America, various Disney entities, the Florida Insurance Council and former Republican House speaker Dean Cannon, who now runs a lobbying firm.

In a Republican candidates' debate last month, Trumbull said he opposed too much regulation, frivolous lawsuits and increased taxes and fees -- which, he said, "extort small businesses."

"We have to figure out a way to make this the most business-friendly place in the country," Trumbull said. "Florida's on the cusp, and I think we're close to doing that."

But he also said he wouldn't call himself a product of the Republican establishment.

"That moniker probably belongs more with one of my opponents who have served in the party establishment or have worked on staff in Congress," he wrote in an email. "If you look at my contributions list, Id say that Im more of a product of Bay County's small-business establishment, and the reason why Im running is because I felt that we did not have a candidate with true small-business experience running for this office."

Patronis isn't endorsing any of the Republican candidates, but several members of his family, including his father, have donated to Trumbull's campaign. Also, the Patronis family has multigenerational ties to the Trumbull family, which owns the local Culligan Water franchise and has partnered with the Patronis family in a bottled-water company called Econfina.

"I am personally trying to do my best to stay out of the race," Patronis said. "There's fantastic candidates running, they're my friends, but the process will work its way out."

All of the Republican candidates describe themselves as strong conservatives. The GOP nominee will face Democrat Jamie Shepard and the Green Party's Henry Lawrence in the general election.

Rohan, who has been a Bay County Republican state committeewoman and county chairwoman, opposes the Common Core education standards. She said she has the education and certain practical skills the other candidates lack.

"I was pretty well-equipped" for her two terms on the Bay County School Board, she said. "I could understand what the lawyer was saying."

Rohan, who grew up in an orphanage, said she continues to hold the values she learned there, including hard work and frugality. She was adopted at age 12 by a family with means, became a nurse and now manages her husband's medical practice.

Rohan has loaned her campaign more than $54,000, she said, "because I really want to fulfill this dream of going (to Tallahassee) and representing Bay County."

Bishop, who got his job with the congressional committee through a family connection to U.S. Rep. Spencer Bachus, R-Ala., said he'd been "interested in politics forever." In his teens, he was a volunteer for George W. and Jeb Bush, but got a jolt when the financial crisis exploded in 2008.

"George Bush was in charge," he said. "How on earth could something like this happen on our watch? ... I stopped listening to Sean Hannity and started reading books about American history and about the Constitution and about economics."

Bishop said House District 6 voters are deeply frustrated and hungry for ideas, which has given his campaign a boost. Although he's being outspent 20-to-1, he said, his campaign has taken off.

And while Trumbull has money and endorsements, Bishop said his opponent "doesn't have a message that resonates in Bay County."

Hagan emphasized job creation through an educated workforce. "Education and job growth go hand in hand," she said during last month's debate.

Hagan serves as president of Girls Inc., and on the boards of Junior Achievement and the Salvation Army.

Some people dont think that conservatives have a heart, she said. But I think that I do, and I think Ive shown that in my work in the community. If we truly want government out of our lives, we all need to step up and serve these organizations, because I think theyll be able to help move us along.

Hagan, too, has put her own money into the race.

"I made an initial investment in this campaign because I wanted the people of Bay County to know that I had skin in the game and was willing to make an investment in them," she said in an email.

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