The most closely watched race in the Florida Senate is a bare-knuckle battle between two political rivals.
But the contest between Democratic state Sen. Maria Sachs and former Republican Sen. Ellyn Bogdanoff is more than just a grudge match. It could also give Republicans a veto-proof majority in the upper chamber — and determine the Senate president in 2016.
Some observers say it could even help Democrat Charlie Crist become Florida’s next governor.
“If this race turns out people in Broward and Palm Beach counties, those people are also going to vote for Crist,” said Robert Watson, a professor of American Studies at Lynn University in Boca Raton.
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Bogdanoff has raised about $380,000 and landed some big endorsements, including the Florida Chamber of Commerce, the Florida Medical Association and the Florida Professional Firefighters and Paramedics.
Sachs has collected about $300,000 in campaign contributions, records show. She has the support of the Florida Education Association and the gay-rights group Equality Florida.
The two lawmakers weren’t always rivals. Bogdanoff and Sachs were elected to separate seats in the Florida Senate in 2010. But when the districts were revamped as part of redistricting in 2012, the incumbents found themselves vying for the same job.
The 2012 race was one of the year’s most negative and expensive. Sachs spent nearly $350,000, state elections records show. Bogdanoff’s war chest topped $736,000.
In the end, Sachs won the Democratic-leaning district by 5 percentage points. Bogdanoff, 55, announced plans to run again in June.
The Fort Lauderdale Republican says she launched her bid because she had more work to do in Tallahassee — and because she was more likely to win the district without President Barack Obama at the top of the ticket.
“Broward and Palm Beach counties have been losing out [on state funding],” she said. “They do not have someone in the majority party who can be effective for them.”
Bogdanoff isn’t a traditional GOP candidate. While she supports pro-business policies and lower taxes — she once pushed a bill that would have allowed destination casinos — she also supports criminal justice reform and same-sex marriage. She was recently endorsed by the Palm Beach County Human Rights Council, a gay-rights group.
Sachs, 64, is a Democratic stalwart who advocates for public schools, a woman’s right to choose and increasing the minimum wage. She is also known for a proposal to end the requirement that greyhound tracks race dogs, as well as her support for veterans.
“I represent the values of the people who live in this district,” she said.
The race has the potential to shake up the Florida Senate. If the number of Democrats in the Senate dips from 14 to 13, the Republicans will have a two-thirds majority — and the power to override a veto from the governor.
Then, there’s the Senate presidency.
Sen. Jack Latvala, of Clearwater, and Sen. Joe Negron, of Stuart, are in a deadlocked contest to lead the upper chamber in 2016. Bogdanoff has a close relationship with Latvala and said she would tip the scale in his favor.
Latvala has been supporting Bogdanoff’s campaign by raising money and courting potential allies.
One group that has not helped her campaign: the Republican Party of Florida.
Bogdanoff’s campaign finance reports show no contributions from the party. By contrast, the Florida Democratic Party has given Sachs polling and staffing resources worth more than $100,000.
Republican Party of Florida spokeswoman Susan Hepworth said party leaders were focusing their resources on the more competitive races in the House and Senate.
But political observers say the GOP did not want to encourage a competitive race in Senate District34. That’s because strong voter turnout in left-leaning Broward and Palm Beach could hurt Republican Gov. Rick Scott’s chances of being reelected.
Bogdanoff has tried to jog to the center and highlight her experience as executive director for the Florida Association for Child Care Management.
One campaign ad features three female voters — a Republican, a Democrat and an independent — each expressing their support for Bogdanoff. “This isn’t about politics,” one woman says. “This is about our children.”
Another flier, distributed to parents at Broward childcare centers, hardly mentions Bogdanoff’s party affiliation.
The contest has once again gotten nasty. Bogdanoff is drawing attention to allegations that Sachs lives outside the district, a violation of the state Constitution. A website paid for by a third-party group claims Sachs is “hiding the truth.”
Sachs says the allegations are unfounded, and that she has the records to prove her residency in Delray Beach. Her ads paint Bogdanoff as someone who has supported nursing home companies that abuse senior citizens.
“It's like a mini-governor’s race, filled with vitriolic ads,” said Watson, the Lynn University professor.
Patti Lynn, a Broward County activist who supports Sachs, said she hasn’t been persuaded.
“The more negative attack ads that I see, the stronger my resolve to vote for the person being attacked,” she said.
Some observers say Sachs has the edge.
“The Democrats have never had this much of a concerted field and media effort in one Senate district, at least in my memory,” said Kartik Krishnaiyer, of the left-leaning political blog The Florida Squeeze. “That means the deck is kind of stacked against the Republican in that race.”
Kenneth Woliner, a Boca Raton physician, said he plans to support the incumbent.
“Maria Sachs has been an unflinching consumer advocate, as evidenced by her steadfast support of her parasailing bill that finally passed last legislative session,” he said, referencing a bill that imposed stricter regulations on parasailing operators.
But Mort Levitt, who is also a Boca Raton physician, said he will vote for her Republican challenger.
“The economy is sluggish, the budget is broken, the Congress an embarrassment to us all, and we are all distrusting of federal and local government,” he said. “For those reasons, my election strategy is simple: vote all the incumbents out of office.”
Contact Kathleen McGrory at kmcgrory@MiamiHerald.com. This article includes comments from the Public Insight Network, an online community of people who have agreed to share their opinions with the Miami Herald and WLRN. Become a source at MiamiHerald.com/insight.