MANATEE -- Longtime state lawmaker Mike Bennett will hold public office for at least another four years -- his seat is just moving from Tallahassee to Bradenton.
The Republican senator rode his lofty political experience and an overwhelming cash advantage to a sizeable victory in the contest to replace Manatee County Supervisor of Elections Bob Sweat, who is retiring after 28 years and oversaw his final election Tuesday.
Bennett handily fended off Democrat challenger and local pastor Charles Williams Jr. and write-in Rodney "Smokey" Smithley, with nearly a 16 percentage-point margin of victory -- earning 75,455 votes, or 57 percent of the total.
"People looked at it and said Mike Bennett has 12 years up there (in Tallahassee), he's run multiple businesses and he has the experience to do the job," Bennett said from his home Tuesday night, where he watched the results quietly with his wife.
Bennett owns several area real estate investments, his Linger Lodge restaurant and an ownership share of the Ellenton Ice Sports Complex.
Among all local candidates, the 67-year-old Bradenton man also has the most robust resume in government.
Bennett spent a total of 12 years in the Florida Legisla
ture, including the past 10 in the state Senate, where he reached term limits.
He also raised the most cash of any local candidate required to report their contributions to the Manatee Supervisor of Elections Office.
The longtime senator raised $136,850 -- compared to just $9,247 for Williams and $3,365 for Smithley, according to election records.
Bennett says the biggest challenge ahead of him is filling the massive shoes left behind by Sweat, but he believes the solid elections staff that's sticking around will help bridge that gap.
"I'm a little scared because there's no way I can run my first election as good as Sweat does any," Bennett said. "I have a big learning curve ahead."
Williams, the founder and pastor of the King of Kings Baptist Church in Palmetto, was disappointed by the results late Tuesday.
But he held his head high as he watched the numbers come in from a gathering at Touch of Class restaurant. He finished with 54,939 votes, or 41.5 percent of the total.
Smithley, who works a glass glazer, only mustered 1,810 votes for just a little more than 1 percent. He could not be reached Tuesday.
Neither Williams nor Smithley had made a run for public office prior to Tuesday's election.
"It wasn't a landslide like many people thought -- it was a real fight," Williams said. "I think everything went well. It was my first race, I'm excited and still relatively happy with everything that took place. This has definitely opened a new door for me."
Josh Salman, Herald business writer, can be reached at 941-745-7095. Follow him on Twitter @JoshSalman