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Upfront

Republican challenger William McBride takes on state Rep. Darren Soto

Senate District 14 candidates lean toward caution and constituent ethnicity, at least on the surface

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It may have been one of the few apparent populist successes to come out of last year's legislative redistricting battle, but the creation of Senate District 14 – which combines parts of two districts stretching the distance of Orange, Osceola and Polk counties in a move to create a more Hispanic voting bloc – hasn't yet signaled a sea change in state politics as usual. Most notably, it's given incumbent state Rep. Darren Soto, D-Orlando, the opportunity to ascend from five and a half years in the House minority into a more influential body. But, with the addition of Republican hopeful Will McBride – a familiar Spanish-language television attorney with scant political chops – to the fray, the race has become haphazardly comedic in its blandness. Both candidates boast overflowing coffers thanks to big business involvement, and, perhaps because of that, neither is steering too far from his centrist, likable course.

Soto came to his House office in a special election in 2007, riding a miniature surge of young Central Florida progressives led by now-outgoing state Rep. Scott Randolph, D-Orlando. But Soto, an attorney who repeatedly clings to the "moderate" label (enough so that he's been a safe bet for President Barack Obama's attempts at Hispanic outreach), ruffled some feathers when it came time to vote. In his first year, Soto supported Republican red-meat policies on social issues like abortion, though at the time he claimed he was still in support of a woman's right to choose. He's still tepid on the issue, saying he prefers to leave decisions on women's health to women and their doctors. Similarly, he toes the line on gun control: He would still vote in favor of a bill he supported in 2008 that prohibited public and private employers from forbidding firearms in their employees' parked cars.

"I have a high crime district," he says, adding that the other option would be to keep the guns hidden behind trees. "I would vote the same way currently based on self-defense and privacy."

It's the gray area that Soto often occupies, however. In a recent Orlando Sentinel editorial board interview, Soto claimed he was misled on the implications of some bills – including one mandating ultrasounds prior to the termination of pregnancies – adding that he would probably change his vote today if he had the chance.

Soto has remained reliably liberal on less controversial issues, including education and labor. His win in November could signal procedural changes; if the Senate were to get to 14 Democrats, then Democrats would have the power to police Republican overreaching. Even so, Soto says it's important, especially as a Democrat perpetually voting in the minority, that a legislator have something more to show for himself than what he's been against. To that end, Soto has made headlines for his successes on banning street racing, moving SunRail forward and ensuring benefits for the spouses of fallen firefighters.

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