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Florida Primary: GOP U.S. Rep. Ross Spano fights for seat, as bevy of Republicans scramble in open districts
Far-right provocateur Laura Loomer may create another headache for GOP leaders with win in Palm Beach County U.S. House district
♦By Rich Shumate, ChickenFriedPolitics.com editor
TALLAHASSEE (CFP) — Voters across the Sunshine State head to the polls Tuesday for in-person voting in a primary that features a number of competitive races for U.S. House party nominations and an effort by far-right provocateur Laura Loomer to capture a GOP U.S. House nomination in Palm Beach County.
Tuesday’s primary includes races for U.S. House, state legislature and local offices; no U.S. Senate seats or statewide offices are up in this cycle. Polls are open from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. local time.
The only incumbent in significant danger Tuesday is Republican U.S. Rep. Ross Spano, who is being challenged for his party’s nomination in the 15th District (I-4 Corridor between Tampa and Orlando) by Lakeland City Commissioner Scott Franklin amid a federal criminal investigation into illegal loans made to his 2018 campaign. Spano has admitted his campaign violated campaign finance laws but denies any criminal wrongdoing.
The Republican field includes Kat Cammack, a former Yoho aide from Gainesville; former Gainesville City Commissioner Todd Chase; Clay County Commissioner Gavin Rollins; and two personally wealthy candidates who have largely self-financed their campaigns, James St. George, a physician from Fleming Island, and Judson Sapp, a businessman from Green Cove Springs.
Because Florida does not have primary runoffs, the first-place finisher in Tuesday’s crowded primary will win the nomination with a plurality and will be favored in November in the Republican-leaning district, which is mostly rural but includes the University of Florida.
The Democratic race in the 3rd District is between Adam Christensen, a Gainesville businessman; Phil Dodds, a software designer from Alachua who ran for the seat in 2012; and Tom Wells, a physicist who has been endorsed by the Democratic Socialists of America and groups affiliated with Vermont U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders.
The fundraising race in the primary has been led by two wealthy candidates who have dipped into their own funds for their campaigns: Casey Askar, a Iraqi immigrant businessman and former Marine from Naples who has loaned his campaign $3 million, and Wiliiam Figlesthaler, a urologist from Naples who has loaned his campaign nearly $2 million.
But State Rep. Byron Donalds of Naples has raised more then $1 million from donors and snagged endorsements from the National Rifle Association, the conservative Club for Growth, and the campaign arm of the House Freedom Caucus. Two other elected officials are also in the race: State House Majority Leader Dane Eagle from Cape Coral and Fort Myers Mayor Randy Henderson.
The 19th District is heavily Republican, which will make the primary winner the prohibitive favorite in November. However, Democrat David Holden, a Naples financial adviser who was the party’s nominee for the seat in 2018, has raised $230,000 for the race and looks poised to get a chance at a rematch. He lost to Rooney by 25 points in 2018.
The race has become a contest between House Republicans leaders, who are backing Amanda Makki, a well-connected former congressional aide and Washington lobbyist, and Anna Paulina Luna, a conservative television personality and staunch defender of President Donald Trump who has the backing of Florida U.S. Rep. Matt Gaetz and has tapped the conservative grassroots to raise almost $1 million for the race.
Complicating their path is George Buck, a former college professor and emergency response consultant who was the party’s nominee for the seat in 2018, losing to Crist by 15 points. He has raised more than $1 million.
Buck made headlines during the campaign when he said he would push for a constitutional amendment that would prevent foreign-born U.S. citizens from serving in Congress — a restriction that would directly affect Makki, who was born in Iran.
Makki has also come under fire for her work as a policy analyst for Alaska U.S. Senator Lisa Murkowski, who has been one of the few Republican senators to distance herself from Trump. Trump’s son, Donald Jr., also publicly criticized Makki for using a photograph of the two of them together in her promotional materials, even though he has not endorsed her.
Crist is one of only two Florida Democrats whose seat is expected to be possibly competitive in 2020. The other is U.S. Rep. Stephanie Murphy in the 7th District (Orlando and its northern suburbs), where the Republican race is between Richard Goble, a mortgage broker from Lake Mary; Leo Valentin, an Orlando radiologist; and Yukong Zhao, a Chinese immigrant and energy executive from Orlando. Murphy won by 15 points in 2018
In the 21st District (Palm Beach County), Loomer is facing five other Republicans for the nomination to face Democratic U.S. Rep. Lois Frankel in November and has raised more than $1 million, outpacing even Frankel.
While the GOP winner will have little chance against Frankel in the heavily Democratic district, where no Republican even bothered to oppose her in 2018, Loomer would be yet another fringe nominee for Republican leaders to defend, after victories by adherents of the QAnon conspiracy theory in Georgia and Colorado.
Loomer, who describes herself as a “nationalist” but eschews the “alt-right” label, has been banned from a variety of social media sites — and even Uber and PayPal — for anti-Muslim rhetoric, describing herself on Twitter as a #ProudIslamophobe and calling for a ban on Muslims entering the country. Among her particular targets are the only two Muslim women in Congress, U.S. Reps. Rashida Tlaib of Michigan and Ilhan Omar of Minnesota.
Loomer has also drawn attention to herself for outlandish publicity stunts, including heckling reporters at the Conservative Political Action conference (which got her banned from the event); asking Chelsea Clinton at a book signing to autograph a book for a woman who alleges that the Clinton’s father, the former president, raped her; and interrupting the assassination scene in performance of Shakespeare’s Julius Cesear in Central Park, shouting “this is violence against Donald Trump.”
She has also spread conspiracy theories, including that Omar had married her brother and that some school shootings were staged and survivors coached to talk to the media.
Despite that questionable pedigree, Loomer’s campaign has drawn support from Gaetz, Trump confidante Roger Stone, U.S. Rep. Paul Gosar of Arizona, and Fox News personality Jeanine Pirro. Trump retweeted a fundraising solicitation sent on Loomer’s behalf, although he has not endorsed her.
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Democratic and Republican campaign arms are targeting 25 Southern seats
♦By Rich Shumate, ChickenFriedPolitics.com editor
WASHINGTON (CFP) — The U.S. House campaign arms for both parties have released their first list of targets for 2020, with Southern Democrats playing an unfamiliar role they haven’t enjoyed in recent cycles — on defense, protecting their 2018 gains.
Next year’s congressional battles in the South will take place almost entirely in the suburbs. Nearly all of the 25 districts being targeted by both parties contain suburban areas around large cities, territory where Democrats made major gains last November and hope to make more.
The National Republican Congressional Committee — trying to claw its way back into a majority after a disappointing 2018 — is targeting 12 Democrat-held seats across the South, 10 of which are held by by freshmen who flipped seats, including three seats in Virginia, two each in Texas and Florida, and seats won in breakthroughs in Oklahoma, South Carolina and Georgia.
Among the targets are eight Democratic freshmen who supported Nancy Pelosi’s bid for House speaker — a vote that is sure to be front and center on TV screens when 2020 rolls around.
Only two veteran Democrats, both in Florida, are on the GOP’s target list — Charlie Crist in the Clearwater-based 13th District, and Stephanie Murphy in the 7th District in metro Orlando. Both districts look competitive on paper, although neither Crist nor Murphy had much trouble in 2018.
Meanwhile, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee is targeting 13 Republican-held seats across the South, an audacious list that includes nine veteran GOP incumbents, some with decades of experience.
And while Democrats will have to defend a bumper crop of incumbents, just two of the Southern Democratic targets are freshman Republicans — Ross Spano in Florida’s 15th District and Chip Roy in Texas’s 21st District.
Defending long-term incumbents is usually easier that defending freshmen seeking a second term, which could give
Republicans an advantage overall in the South in 2020.
The GOP has another advantage — while its targets are nearly evenly split between districts that Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton carried in 2016, 12 of the 13 Democratic targets are in districts Trump carried, which will be more difficult to flip. (The lone exception is Will Hurd in Texas’s 23rd District.)
Democrats are also unlikely to replicate the wave they enjoyed in 2018, which carried them to victory in some rather unlikely places.
Still, Republicans find themselves with the unexpected — and unwelcome — prospect of spending energy and money to reclaim seats in such normally red areas as Oklahoma City, Charleston and the suburbs of Atlanta, Houston and Dallas.
Among the Republican freshman targeted, Spano, whose district stretches inland from the suburbs of Tampa, may be vulnerable in 2020 after admitting that he borrowed money from two friends that he then plowed into his election campaign, which is a violation of federal campaign finance laws.
He blamed bad advice from this then-campaign treasurer; Democrats are pushing for an investigation.
Roy, a former top aide to U.S. Senator Ted Cruz, won by just two points in 2018. His district includes suburbs of Austin and San Antonio and rural areas to the west.
One seat on the Democrats’ list, Georgia’s 7th District in Atlanta’s northwest suburbs, will be open, thanks to the pending departure of Rob Woodall, who decided to retire after winning by just 400 votes in 2018. Another seat, North Carolina’s 9th District, is vacant due to an ongoing dispute over allegations of absentee ballot fraud.
Democrats have decided to forgo, at least for now, targeting two seats that they tried and failed to flip in 2018 — Arkansas’s 2nd District in metro Little Rock, held by French Hill, and West Virginia’s 3rd District, which takes in the southern third of the state, held by Carol Miller.
However, they are once again trying to flip Kentucky’s 6th District, in and around Lexington, where Andy Barr held off a spirited challenge from Democratic newcomer Amy McGrath, who raised a whopping $8.6 million.
McGrath hasn’t said if she’s running again. Senate Democrats have been encouraging her for forgo a rematch with Barr and instead challenge Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell.
The toughest sled for Democrats will be taking out nine veteran Republicans they have targeted, including five in Texas alone.
Among the Texas targets are five men who between them have more than 60 years of seniority: John Carter in the 31st District in the northern Austin suburbs; Kenny Marchant in the 24th District in Dallas-Ft. Worth; Mike McCaul in the 10th District that stretches from Austin toward Houston; and Pete Olson in 22nd District in Houston’s western suburbs.
Until the 2018 cycle, these Texas seats had been thought safely Republican. But Carter and Marchant won by just 3 points in 2018; McCaul won by 4 points and Olson by 5 points.
Democrats are also going after Brian Mast in Florida’s 18th District north of Palm Beach; and, in North Carolina, George Holding, in the 2nd District around Raleigh, and Ted Budd, in 13th District between Charlotte and Greensboro.
The freshmen that Democrats will have to defend including two in the Miami area, Donna Shalala in the 27th District, and Debbie Mucarsel-Powell in the 26th District; Lucy McBath in Georgia’s 6th District in Atlanta’s northeast suburbs; Kendra Horn in the Oklahoma City-based 5th District; and Joe Cunningham, who represents the South Carolina Low Country in the 1st District.
Three freshmen Democrats in Virginia are also on the list — Elaine Luria, who represents the 2nd District in Hampton Roads; Abigail Spanberger, who represents the 7th District in the Richmond suburbs, and Jennifer Wexton, whose 10th District includes the Virginia suburbs of Washington, D.C.
The Republican target list also includes two Texas freshman: Colin Allred, who represents the 32nd District in metro Dallas, and Lizzie Pannill Fletcher, who represents the 7th District in metro Houston.
All of these freshmen, except for Spanberger and Cunningham, voted for Pelosi for speaker.
Among the GOP targets, Shalala and Wexton are likely in the least danger, as both represent districts Hillary Clinton carried easily in 2016. Horn, McBath and Cunningham — whose 2018 wins were among the biggest surprises of the election cycle — are likely in the most jeopardy.
Democrats’ success in 2018 was largely the result of raising enough money to be competitive in GOP-held districts, in many cases even outraising incumbents who didn’t take their races seriously enough.
Democratic freshmen being targeted in 2020 should have no problem raising money; neither will challengers to Republican incumbents who had close calls in 2018. Members of the majority party also tend to have easier access to campaign money than the party out of power.
Still, 2020 will no doubt see Republicans loaded for bear, with two years to regroup and build up their treasuries, leaving voters facing loud, expensive and contentious races across the South.
Heading into 2020, Republicans hold 101 seats among delegations in the 14 Southern states; Democrats have 50, with one vacant seat in North Carolina.
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Jolly’s decision removes another obstacle from possible re-election run by Marco Rubio
♦By Rich Shumate, Chickenfriedpolitics.com editor
CLEARWATER, Florida (CFP) — Republican U.S. Rep. David Jolly is dropping his bid for Florida’s U.S. Senate seat and will instead run for re-election to his 13th District House seat, setting up a likely general election battle with former Florida Governor Charlie Crist.
“I’ve got unfinished business,” Jolly said at a June 17 news conference at the St.Petersburg-Clearwater airport where he announced the switch. “Today, I’m asking my community simply for the opportunity to keep doing my job.”
Jolly, 43, was elected in a special election in 2014 and easily won a full term that fall to the seat, anchored in Pinellas County in the Tampa Bay area.
However, earlier this year, the Florida Supreme Court ordered that the state’s congressional map be redrawn, and the new map put a part of St. Petersburg with a large minority population into the 13th, turning what had been a swing district into one that favored Democrats.
Faced with the new map, Jolly decided to jump into the Senate race instead. But he failed to gain much traction in a crowded GOP field, a situation made much worse when Republican leaders in Washington began pressuring U.S. Senator Marco Rubio to seek re-election, which made it difficult for the other candidates to raise money.
Meanwhile, Republican leaders in Pinellas County, who struggled to find a strong candidate to challenge Crist, had urged Jolly to switch races and seek re-election.
Crist, 59, was elected governor as a Republican in 2006, and, in 2010, decided to run for the Senate rather than seek re-election. However, when it became clear he would lose to Rubio in the primary, he left the GOP and became an independent to continue his Senate quest.
After losing to Rubio in the general election, Crist became a Democrat in 2012 and ran for governor in 2014, losing to Republican Governor Rick Scott. After that defeat, Crist announced he was leaving politics but changed his mind and launched a bid for Congress after the map was redrawn.
Jolly’s decision to switch races clears another obstacle for a possible re-election run by Rubio. Another Republican candidate in the Senate race, Lieutenant Governor Carlos López-Cantera has indicated that he, too, will drop out if Rubio decides to run.
Florida’s lieutenant governor tells Politico he has urged Rubio to reconsider his decision not to seek re-election
MIAMI (CFP) — Just days before qualifying is set to begin in Florida’s U.S. Senate primary, Lieutenant Governor Carlos López-Cantera has disclosed that if U.S. Senator Marco Rubio decides to run for re-election, he will end his own Senate campaign.
López-Cantera, who got into the Senate race at Rubio’s urging, tells Politico that when he met Rubio at the scene of the Orlando nightclub massacre, he urged Rubio to reconsider his decision not to seek re-election in 2016.
Rubio has been under increasing pressure from Republican Senate leaders to reverse course and run again. But his longtime personal and political friendship with López-Cantera has been seen as an obstacle to any Rubio candidacy.
Rubio gave up his seat to make an unsuccessful bid for the Republican presidential nomination and has insisted repeatedly that he will not be a Senate candidate. But Florida’s relatively late party primaries, at the end of August, have left him a window of time to change his mind.
Qualifying ends June 24, giving Rubio a little more than a week to make a final decision.
Rubio is seen as the strongest Republican candidate in the Senate race, which Democrats are trying to capture to wrest Senate control away from the GOP. López-Cantera and three Republican rivals have been battling for the nomination; the lieutenant governor is the only one of them who has won statewide.
Jolly opted to take a pass on defending his House seat after a court-ordered redistricting added Democratic voters to what had been a swing district. However, the likely Democratic nominee for that seat is former Governor Charlie Crist, a Republican-turned-independent-turned-Democrat who lost statewide races in 2010 and 2014.
As the incumbent, Jolly would be in the best position to thwart the political resurrection of Crist, a man roundly despised in Republican circles.
Only 11 seats are in play across the region; Democrats may make small gains
♦By Rich Shumate, Chickenfriedpolitics.com editor
(CFP) — Heading toward the November election, just 11 of the South’s 154 U.S. House seats look to be at all in play, a measly 7 percent.
Indeed, in 10 states, no seats are likely to change parties, although results from Louisiana’s late November primary may add to the list. In three of the four states with seats in play–North Carolina, Florida and Virginia–the competitive races are largely the result of new court-ordered House maps, which have disturbed the political equilibrium.
Currently, Republicans hold 116 seats in the South, compared to just 38 for Democrats, or about 75 percent. That GOP dominance is unlikely to budge much.
Overall, Democrats appear poised to pick up at least two seats in Florida and one in Virginia, while Republicans are favored to pick up at least one seat in Florida. There are three seats–two in Florida and one in Texas–that are out-and-out toss-ups. Thus, a net gain of five seats for Democrats in the South would be a good night.
Here are the 11 races to watch:
Florida 2: This seat, anchored in the Florida Panhandle around Tallahassee, is currently held by Democratic U.S. Rep. Gwen Graham. In redrawing the Sunshine State’s map, the Florida Supreme Court removed a chunk of black voters and part of Tallahassee from the district in order to redraw the adjacent 5th District, making what had been a swing seat substantially more Republican. Graham, the only Democrat to take away a Republican seat anywhere in the South in 2014, looked at her odds and decided not to run again, for good reason. Republicans nominated Panama City urologist Neal Dunn, who should have little problem here. RATING: GAIN GOP
Florida 5: This seat, held by Democratic U.S. Rep. Corrine Brown, was the primary offender in the Supreme Court ruling that the House map was unconstitutional. Over Brown’s strenuous objections, the justices ordered an extreme makeover; the district now starts in Jacksonville and heads due west to Tallahassee, making it less black and more Republican. Brown, who has been indicted on federal corruption charges, was bounced in the primary by Al Lawson, a former state lawmaker from Tallahassee. The GOP had some hope of a takeaway with Brown in the race, but those hopes were likely dashed with her primary loss. RATING: PROBABLY DEM
Florida 7: Republican U.S. Rep. John Mica is running again in this district in suburban Orlando. But he now has some of the Democratic voters who used to be in Brown’s 5th District, making this district much less safe that it was. He will face political newcomer Stephanie Murphy, a college professor and former national security professional, who was the only Democrat to file against Mica. RATING: PROBABLY GOP
Florida 10: This Orlando-area district, now held by Republican U.S. Rep. Daniel Webster, was made substantially more Democratic in the redraw–so much so that Webster opted to run for re-election in the adjacent 11th District, where U.S. Rep. Rich Nugent is retiring. Democrats nominated former Orlando Police Chief Val Demings, who should have little problem in November. RATING: GAIN DEM
Florida 13: This swing district in the Tampa Bay area will feature a high voltage smackdown between Republican U.S. Rep. David Jolly and former Florida Governor Charlie Crist, the Republican-turned-independent-turned-Democrat who is trying to make a political comeback after losing the governor’s race in 2014. The redraw of Florida’s map added a portion of St. Petersburg with a large minority population to this district, making it more Democratic. Facing long odds, Jolly first opted to run for the U.S. Senate before deciding to try to keep his seat. With Jolly out, this would have been a Democratic pick-up. That’s still probable but much less certain with the incumbent back in the race. RATING: PROBABLY DEM
Florida 18: This seat, which includes part of Palm Beach County and the Treasure Coast, is a classic swing district now held by Democratic U.S. Rep. Patrick Murphy, who gave it up to run for the U.S. Senate. Democrats selected Randy Perkins, a multimillionaire businessman from Delray Beach, while Republicans went with Brian Mast, an Army veteran who lost both his legs while serving as a bomb disposal specialist in Afghanistan. Both are political newcomers in what is likely to be a high-profile fight to the finish. RATING: TOSS-UP
Florida 26: Like the 18th District, this seat, which includes southwest Miami-Dade County and the Florida Keys, has gone back and forth between the parties in recent cycles. The incumbent, Republican U.S. Rep. Carlos Curbelo, will face a rematch against the man he beat by less than 5,800 votes in 2014, former Democratic U.S. Rep. Joe Garcia. RATING: TOSS-UP
Texas 23: This massive district, which stretches across a vast expanse of West Texas from the San Antonio suburbs to near El Paso, has changed hands in the last three elections. The incumbent is U.S. Rep. Will Hurd, who is that rarest of creatures, a black Republican representing a majority Latino district. His Democratic challenger is the man Hurd beat in 2014, former U.S. Rep. Pete Gallego. Hurd’s winning margin last time was just 2,400 votes, indicating just how equally divided this district is. With a 55 percent Latino population and Donald Trump at the head of the GOP ticket, Hurd may be battling for his life. RATING: TOSS-UP
Virginia 4: A new map drawn by a federal court added Richmond and Petersburg to this southeast Virginia district, making it substantially more Democratic. The incumbent, Republican U.S. Rep. Randy Forbes, left this seat to run in the redrawn 2nd District, leaving an open seat that’s ripe for a Democratic pick-up. Republican Henrico County Sheriff Mike Wade will face off against Democratic State Senator Donald McEachin, also of Henrico County. A win by McEachin in the redrawn district would add a second African-American congressman to the state’s delegation. RATING: GAIN DEM
Virginia 5: Democrats have hopes of taking this seat, which is open because of the retirement of Republican U.S. Rep. Robert Hurt. But this district, which stretches through central Virginia from the North Carolina border to the Washington, D.C. suburbs, has a Republican lean. GOP State Senator Tom Garrett from Buckingham County is facing Democrat Jane Dittmar, the former chair of the Albermarle County Board of Supervisors. RATING: PROBABLY GOP
Virginia 10: This district, which starts in the western D.C. suburbs and stretches out to West Virginia, is held by Republican U.S. Rep. Barbara Comstock and is at the top of the Democrats’ wish list. Although Comstock won handily in 2014, this is a district full of suburban swing voters who Democrats are hoping will be turned off by a Trump-led GOP ticket. She faces Democrat LuAnn Bennett, a real estate developer who is the ex-wife of former U.S. Rep. Jim Moran. RATING: PROBABLY GOP