Stewart has strong ties to Orange County, having served two terms on the County Commission and even having a stint as vice mayor. In 2012, Stewart successfully painted Brooks as too conservative for the district but she only won with 52 percent even with Barack Obamas and Bill Nelsons coattails helping Democrats. Alex Sink did better here in 2010, beating Rick Scott by 5 percent.
This is a swing district, to be sure, but Republicans do have a slight advantage in voter registration. Even worse for Stewart, she was in the news at the end of February for all the wrong reasons as federal agents raided a home she owned and her daughter lived in, busting a felon for having a gun and drugs. Stewart seems to have avoided damage, insisting she was trying to get squatters out of the house.
Stewart has already drawn three Republican opponents. Businessman Maurice Mo Pearson has a leg up over Erik Arroyo and Frank Caprio in the Republican primary. While his two rivals have yet to build up their campaign funds, Pearson has built up an impressive war chest. Since the end of July when he entered the race until the end of February, Pearson has raised more than $68,000, loaned his campaign $10,000 and spent almost $11,000.
Republicans are starting to notice Pearson and getting on board the bandwagon. Winter Park Mayor Ken Bradley endorsed Pearson this week. Legislators in Tallahassee like Alan Hays, Jason Brodeur, David Santiago and Ritch Workman have come out for Pearson in recent weeks. So have members of the Orange County Commission. Republicans are increasingly seeing Pearson as their best hope to take down Stewart.
Since filing for a second term in December 2012, Stewart has raised more than $61,150, including $14,750 brought in during February in the dash before session began and she couldnt raise money. Stewart has kept her powder dry, spending less than $8,000 so far but Pearson does have the money edge.
Still, Stewart shouldnt be underestimated. Even before she was involved in politics, Stewart was active in the community and she does have ties all across the district. As Brooks discovered, Stewart can grab the political center when she needs to. Thats clearly her strategy for November as she calls for common ground with common sense.
Regardless of her strengths, Stewart will face a major challenge from Pearson. Expect this to be one of the most competitive legislative contests this time out.
Tallahassee-based political writer Jeff Henderson wrote this analysis exclusively for Sunshine State News.