The Republican primary for Marion County sheriff is shaping up to be a race to the proverbial bank — one that might outdo any local election campaign before it.

The Republican primary for Marion County sheriff is shaping up to be a race to the proverbial bank — one that might outdo any local election campaign before it.

According to their latest campaign finance reports, Chris Blair and Dan Kuhn have each raised more than $130,000 in cash in their respective bids to succeed Sheriff Ed Dean.

And Blair and Kuhn still have four months to go before the Aug. 14 GOP primary.

So far, each of the candidates has banked almost as much as the job pays.

Dean will make $140,572 this year under the state's population-based formula, records indicate.

As of March 31, the end of the most recent reporting period, Blair, the retired head of the Sheriff's Office's major crimes unit, had received $133,810 in cash contributions.

His total increases to $139,553 once in-kind donations are added in, his report shows.

Kuhn, the Sheriff's Office undersheriff, the No. 2 post within the agency, has done even better.

He had reaped $137,265 in cash contributions as of the end of March, according to his report.

Once in-kind donations are factored in, Kuhn's total jumped to $152,907.

While Blair and Kuhn are neck and neck with each other, their respective fundraising prowess has left their Constitution Party opponent in the dust.

Bernie DeCastro had raised $5,021 as of March 31, campaign finance reports show.

More than half of that amount — $2,621 — was money put in by DeCastro, the CEO of a local nonprofit group that helps prison parolees re-enter society.

Blair and Kuhn are not the first local candidates to surpass the six-figure mark in contributions.

But reaching that plateau is still relatively rare in local races.

And, with the pace they are setting, the candidates have ascended into a nearly unprecedented financial stratosphere for Marion County elections.

At the local level in each presidential-election cycle, Marion County voters select three county commissioners, two School Board members and the leaders of the other constitutional offices, including the sheriff, court clerk, elections supervisor, property appraiser and tax collector.

In those years Marion County also elects a schools superintendent, one of the handful of remaining counties in Florida still to do so.

In the interim elections, county voters decide two County Commission seats and three slots on the School Board.

The $100,000 threshold in campaign contributions was crossed for the first time in 2004, when four candidates snared that much, Elections Supervisor Dee Brown's office reports.

From 2004 to the present, a combined total of 119 candidates have filed to run for those county offices. Of those, only nine people — including Blair and Kuhn — have raised more than $100,000.

Dean, a Democrat, has been the community's most prolific political fundraiser.

The sheriff took in $172,958 in cash in his 2004 re-election campaign and topped that four years later with financial contributions totaling $190,959.

Besides Dean, Blair and Kuhn, the other candidates who topped the six-figure mark include: Republican Robert Douglas, Dean's 2004 opponent, who raised $167,687; Tax Collector George Albright, a Republican and former state lawmaker who amassed $162,140 in 2004, his initial campaign for local office; Bob McCall, a Republican who in 2004 battled Albright to be the party's nominee for the tax collector's job, reaped $100,023; Jim Payton, a two-term Republican county commissioner who garnered $117,320 during his 2006 re-election bid; County Commissioner Mike Amsden, a Republican and former long-time Ocala city councilman who compiled $108,910 in his first bid for countywide office four years ago; and Owen Hayden, a 2010 County Commission candidate who ran with no party affiliation and reported $118,406 in contributions.

Sometimes the amount doesn't tell the whole story.

For example, $100,000 of Hayden's total two years ago came out of his own pocket.

And having big money in hand doesn't always mean crushing the opposition.

Payton raised roughly $10 for every $1 received by his 2006 challenger, Democrat Darlene Weesner, yet won the election by 50.8 percent to 49.2 percent, or just 1,675 votes out of 98,049 cast.

In 2008, Amsden raised almost $103,000 more than Democrat Diana Butler, but won his seat with 51 percent of the 147,735 votes cast.

What distinguishes Blair and Kuhn is how quickly so much money has poured into their coffers.

Dean stands alone in having outraised Blair and Kuhn at this point in the election cycle.

The sheriff's fundraising total for the first quarter report in the 2008 election came to $188,030 — 98 percent of his total for the entire campaign.

“It's eye-popping to see these numbers,” said Daniel Smith, a political science professor at the University of Florida who has written about campaign financing.

But, Smith added, the amounts are not entirely surprising.

The amount of money in politics has soared to new heights in recent years and will continue to trend upward in the future, he said.

And that includes even local races, which, he said, are becoming more attractive to hungry candidates.

He pointed out that across Florida former Tallahassee pols are vying for county offices — drawn by the impressive salary, political autonomy, lack of term limits and increased power.

He cited Democratic state Rep. Chuck Chestnut of Gainesville as an example, who is turning away from another term in Tallahassee to run for the Alachua County Commission.

Yet even when former lawmakers are not involved, Smith said the money flowing to Blair and Kuhn says as much about the donors as it does about the candidates.

Candidates at the local level are more reliant on their personal fundraising ability than on party machines or outside interest groups, Smith said, and the response tends to come for the wealthiest 10 percent of the community.

“It tells you the incredible qualities of wealth in this country,” Smith said.

“It's kind of a paradox: even in times when the economy is suffering, the amount of money in political campaigns can be rising. The donating class is very different from the average American.”

Contact Bill Thompson at 867-4117 or at