MANATEE -- Republican U.S. Rep. Vern Buchanan on Tuesday took a sizable early lead over Democratic challenger Keith Fitzgerald, keeping it through the night and cruising to his fourth term after a hard-fought congressional race.
The three-term incumbent Buchanan, a businessman from Longboat Key, declared victory with 53.6 percent of the vote. Fitzgerald, a Democrat from Sarasota, a former Florida House member and a New College professor, had 46.4 percent of the vote.
Buchanan told the crowd of cheering supporters in Sarasota late Tuesday that he planned to focus on creating jobs, since 23 million people are out of work.
He vowed to do everything in his power to help small businesses.
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"I'm humbled by the trust and confidence the people of this district have placed in me," Buchanan said. "This election proves that issues really do matter -- issues like creating jobs, reducing the debt and protecting Medicare.
"It's essential that both parties in Washington come together and work to rebuild our economy and pay down the crippling debt."
Buchanan handily defeated Fitzgerald in both Sarasota and Manatee counties, which together make up the 16th Congressional District.
Late Tuesday, Fitzgerald issued a statement in which he conceded the race.
"Across the district, I've heard from Suncoast voters who believe we must reduce the deficit, grow our economy and protect the benefits promised to our most vulnerable citizens," Fitzgerald said. "I entered this race to represent their concerns in Washington, but I respect the will of the voters and congratulate Vern Buchanan on his re-election."
Last month, Buchanan and Fitzgerald sparred in a televised debate about Medicare and Social Security, how to balance the federal budget and each other's ethics as elected officials.
Buchanan, the incumbent, was the only Florida member of Congress to serve on the powerful House Ways and Means Committee, which has jurisdiction over tax policy, international trade, health care and Social Security.
Ethical matters also were thoroughly discussed during the campaign.
Fitzgerald pointed to numerous investigations of Buchanan's political and business practices, all but one of which were closed with no action taken against Buchanan. (A remaining probe by the House Ethics Committee remains pending.) Buchanan alleged Fitzgerald had financially aided his employer, New College, as a legislator, but the Florida Commission on Ethics ruled last month that two complaints filed about the matter were "legally insufficient" to indicate a possible violation.
Sara Kennedy, Herald reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7031. Follow her on Twitter @sarawrites.com.