After Horner quits in scandal, Democrats see a sudden pickup while Republicans scramble for a replacement

September, 24 2012 3:36 PM

State Rep. Mike Horner’s decision to quit his campaign for re-election amid a prostitution scandal has transformed what had been a safe GOP seat into one of the most competitive legislative elections in Central Florida.

Horner, a two-term incumbent from Kissimmee, had been considered a lock to win in House District 42, which straddles the Osceola and Polk county lines and includes the cities of St. Cloud, Lake Wales and Frostproof. But he abruptly pulled out of the race this morning after he was named as a client of an east Orange County brothel whose owner was arrested in August.

“Obviously, the dynamics have changed,” said Christian Ulvert, a political consultant helping to direct House campaigns for the Florida Democratic Party. “We’re looking at it very closely.”

Under normal circumstances, House District 42 should favor a Republican candidate. Though Democrats have a registration advantage, it performs Republican – Gov. Rick Scott carried it by 10 percentage points in 2010.

But there are some promising signs for Democrats. President Barack Obama came within a sliver of winning it in 2010 — losing to Republican John McCain 49.7 percent to 49.1 percent – and a quarter of the voters are Hispanic voters, who have shown a willingness to cross party lines in the past.

The Democratic nominee in the district is Eileen Game, a little-known small business owner who has raised only about $6,000 from contributors but also loaned her campaign $10,300.

“She went from a nobody to a somebody in 20 seconds,” acknowledged Danny Sexton, the chairman of the Osceola County Republican Party, which along with the Polk County GOP, will choose Horner’s replacement.

Whoever they select faces huge obstacles. Not only will they have to pull a campaign together from scratch, raising money and reaching out to voters in under two months, but they will have do so under Horner’s name – by state law, his name must remain on the ballot.

“It does present some challenges. You would be a fool to say it doesn’t,” Sexton said. “There are certainly going to be some voters upset over whatever happened…..And you’ve got to run a campaign that says, ‘I’m not Mike Horner, this is what I believe in. But when you vote, you’ve got to vote for Mike Horner.’”

Several names are already circulating among activists. At the top of the list: Osceola County Commissioner Frank Attkisson, R-Kissimmee. Attkisson served in the House from 2000 until 2008, when he was forced out by term limits. Horner was his successor.

Other rumored names include Ken Smith, a former Osceola County commissioner and former mayor of Kissimmee; and Jimmy Nelson, the chairman of the Polk County Republican Party.

Attkisson said he is very interested in returning to the Florida Legislature at some point. But he would have to resign from the county commission to run this year, which he’s not sure he wants to do.

Attkisson said he must ultimately decide whether it would be better to give up two more years as a commissioner to run an exceptionally difficult campaign under Horner’s name or to simply wait for two years and challenge the Democrat Game if she is elected to the seat.

“We, as Republicans, probably need to thoughtfully look at if, this late in the game, is it worth the investment?” Attkisson said. “And if it is, we need to go full bore. But if it’s not, I think we need to pass. Because I think in two years our message will be strong.”

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