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Can Democrat candidate for sheriff alter outcome of race?

Until last month, when she filed to run for sheriff as a Democrat in November’s elections, I didn’t know there was a Deborah Cooney in Indian River County.

I’d never met her, never spoken with her and, other than what I found during a Google search, didn’t know anything about her.

As of Monday morning, that’s still the case – and she’s at least partially to blame: She provided no phone number on the paperwork she submitted to the county’s Supervisor of Elections, opting to give only a Wabasso Post Office box mailing address and a email address.

When I used that email address to contact her last week, she promptly responded by thanking me for “reaching out” to her, stating she would be “happy” to grant me an interview. However, when I asked if she would call or answer questions via email, there was no response.

So, I don’t know if Cooney, who named herself as treasurer of a campaign account that contained no money, is a serious candidate. (The Democrats of Indian River don’t back candidates until after primaries.)

Two things I do know, however.

First, she has no chance to win.

Second, if she follows through and actually gets on the ballot – to do so, she’ll need to garner more than 1,134 valid signatures on a petition by May 11 or pay the $8,352 filing fee by noon June 12 – she will impact the Republican primary on Aug. 18.

She might even alter the outcome.

If Cooney or any other non-Republican sheriff’s candidate qualifies to run in November’s general election, the Republican primary will be closed to Democrats and voters with no party affiliation.

That means only the county’s 55,000 registered Republicans will be eligible to vote in the primary, where four candidates – Sheriff’s Maj. Eric Flowers, Indian River Shores Public Safety Director Rich Rosell, Fellsmere Police Chief Keith Touchberry and former Sheriff’s Capt. Chuck Kirby – are vying to replace outgoing Sheriff Deryl Loar.

If only Republican candidates have qualified to run, however, Florida law allows all the county’s registered voters – numbering about 120,000, including Democrats and independents – to cast ballots in the Republican primary, which becomes the general election.

In that scenario, the top vote-getter would become the sheriff, even if he fails to get more than 50 percent of the vote.

“If Ms. Cooney qualifies, it changes who gets to vote in the primary, so, of course, it’s going to have an impact,” said Flowers, considered by many to be the frontrunner, mostly because of the endorsements he has received and the $144,000 his campaign has raised.

“What would that impact be? It’s tough to say,” he added. “But I don’t know that the primary being open or closed helps or hurts anybody.”

The candidates, to be sure, aren’t taking any chances. All say they will not change their campaign strategies and will continue to take their messages to all the county’s voters.

“All four of us are actively campaigning everywhere in the county and trying to reach every voter, not just Republicans, because we don’t know if the primary is going to be open or closed,” Rosell said, adding, “I don’t know much about Ms. Cooney or why she’s running. I have no idea what her motives are.”

Nor do I.

Unless Cooney has some law-enforcement experience not mentioned in her blog, it’s fair to wonder if she has entered the race for reasons beyond a desire to be our sheriff.

Certainly, that’s among the questions I’d like to ask.

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