April Freeman Archives - Florida Politics

Running on a memory: Replacement candidates’ difficult campaign role

It’s no easy task running for office when your name doesn’t appear on the ballot. But replacement candidates who stepped in this year for deceased had to do just that.

In Florida Senate District 14, Tommy Wright stood up after the withdrawal of Republican state Sen. Dorothy Hukill, who died days after ending her candidacy. In Florida’s 17th Congressional District, Allen Ellison did the same following the sudden death of Democratic nominee April Freeman.

Tragedy shifted the tone on those elections instantly and irreversibly. The list of challenges the new candidates face seems endless.

They had to mount campaigns in a matter of weeks when their predecessors spent years in anticipation. Qualifying by petition was not an option, so the men needed to pay thousands in qualification fees on little notice. And if all that didn’t make voter education hard enough, their names don’t even appear on the ballot.

Because Freeman and Hukill both passed away after ballots had already been printed, neither Ellison nor Wright can so much as encourage voters to bubble the circle by their own names.

While the candidates face similar challenges, each addressed the problems with deeply different strategies. Now, each one looks toward election returns on ballots cast for someone no longer among the living, in hopes they can be sworn into office in a fallen colleagues stead.

Race to the Finish

Ellison, a Sebring business owner, previously considered running for Congress, but never imagined these circumstances.

“It is unfortunate that it played out this way,” he said. “April was fighter and a very fierce competitor.”

Freeman had run for Congress in Southwest Florida multiple times before, in a special election in the 19th District in 2014 when she lost to Curt Clawson, and then in the 17th District against incumbent Rep. Tom Rooney two years ago.

Weeks before her death, she spoke of confidence following Rooney’s retirement. “I know this district better than anybody running,” she said.

But it wasn’t meant to be. Freeman died in her sleep the evening of Sept. 24, and her husband announced her death the following morning.

Shell-shocked party leaders began the process of finding a replacement, an opening that drew interest from candidates around the state who lost their own contests.

But ultimately, Democrats chose Ellison, a largely untested candidate running in a district where Republican Greg Steube remained a heavy favorite even before Freeman’s death.

Since taking over as a candidate, Ellison has attended forums and campaign events throughout the district, handing out fliers with his own face splashed across the page—and with a faded thumbnail image of Freeman as well.

The campaign slogan for Ellison’s campaign: “Vote for April, Elect Allen Ellison.”

He’s also had his face painted on racecars with American Standard Watersports, in a car with the number 17 painted on the site and another image of Freeman. The car races “in remembrance of April Freeman,” much like Ellison.

He’s had to get as much bang for the buck as possible in his campaign. Federal Election records show he had about $3,014 as of third-quarter reporting. The bulk of Freeman’s money went to pay pack her family for candidate loans.

Steube, meanwhile, closed the third quarter with $182,683 in cash on hand.

New Game, Same Name

This all feels a markedly different approach than what’s occurred in Senate District 14. There, Wright’s been almost an invisible candidate, which in fact is by design.

Florida Politics caught up with Wright at a rally held by President Donald Trump in Fort Myers on Wednesday, but he declined to do an interview. In fact, he stated he wasn’t supposed to talk with anybody about his candidacy until after Election Day.

Tony Ledbetter, chairman of the Volusia County Republican Party, said that’s because as far as party leaders are concerned, Wright’s not the candidate.

“This is about re-electing Dorothy Hukill, not electing Tom Wright,” he said. “She’s on the ballot. It is what it is.”

Hukill announced on Sept. 28 that she would leave the state Senate race following an aggressive return of cancer. The sitting senator, who won election to the district in 2016 with 68 percent of the vote, entered hospice care immediately and succumbed to illness within days.

Ledbetter, a friend of Hukill, says the community remains stung by the loss, and his eyes, this race isn’t about new leadership in the district but about the senator’s legacy.

“The whole focus now is to retain this as a Republican seat,” he said.

The strategy doesn’t set well with Democrat Mel Martin, who had originally filed to challenge Hukill and quickly labeled Wright’s selection as a “business decision.”

To some degrees, party leaders acknowledged as much from the beginning. Wright for years served as a financial support of Republican candidates in the area, and he had the capability to pay a filing fee.

Wright also threw in a $2,500 candidate loan to his campaign, and has only raised $5,700 in addition to that in the limited time he’s run. His campaign largely has relied on in-kind support from the Florida Republican Senatorial Campaign Committee.

Meanwhile, advertising on the part of Republicans has included either attack ads on Martin or continued promotion of Hukill.

But if the approach of Wright and Ellison seems wildly different, the stakes are as well.

Ellison stands in for a Democratic candidate few believed could win a one of Florida’s most conservative districts.

Wright replaces an incumbent Republican state senator, one few believed would be unseated. Hukill, even as illness limited her appearances on the trail, seemed entrenched in the seat. Ledbetter calls her a “lion of the Senate.”

Could this strategy be risky? Democratic analyst Matthew Isbell of MCI Maps after Hukill’s death moved the Senate district in his election forecast from “Safe GOP” straight over to “Lean GOP.”

To make matters worse, a tough national environment puts Republicans on defense anyway, and there’s concern, albeit slight, about actually losing control of the state Senate to Democrats.

But running on Hukill’s popularity may make the most political sense, especially when compared to raising the profile of a political unknown. If Republicans prevail, Wright will be sworn in to a four-year term, and from there voters can hold his accountable for his own record.

Really, there’s no good way to run a campaign once your candidate dies.

For now, Ledbetter says, the situation “is what it is.”

Greg Steube - CD 17 Campaign Photo

Greg Steube hosting first major event since April Freeman’s death

Republican Congressional candidate Greg Steube will host his first major campaign event since the death of Democratic opponent April Freeman.

Steube, a Sarasota state senator running in Florida’s 17th Congressional District, will attend a reception on Oct. 16 at Quail Creek Plantation in Okeechobee.

The event marks a return to campaigning following Freeman’s unexpected death in September. Freeman secured the Democratic nomination in August, the same day Steube won a heated primary over veterans advocate Bill Akins and state Rep. Julio Gonzalez.

But the race altered with Freeman’s passing. Steube immediately released a campaign statement he would suspend campaign operations out of respect.

“My thoughts and prayers are with April Freeman’s family in the wake of her tragic passing,” he said. “I respect her service to our community and admire her commitment to the causes she cared about. Out of respect to her memory, next week’s campaign events will be cancelled.”

Ultimately, events ceased longer than that as Steube had no Democratic opponent.

On Oct. 2, Democrats named Center for Economic and Policy Development CEO Allen Ellison as the replacement nominee for Freeman. Ellison yesterday announced a campaign team, days after the Democrat’s first public reception.

Steube and Ellison expect to meet for the first time at a Tiger Bay candidate forum scheduled for Oct. 18 in Bartow.

Freeman’s name will still appear on the ballot but votes cast for her will count toward Ellison.

Steube’s name, of course, still appears and his votes count for him, and that’s hardly his only advantage in the race. At last report, Steube had nearly $132,000 in cash on hand, while Ellison has yet to report any fundraising.

Retiring U.S. Rep. Tom Rooney, an Okeechobee Republican, won this district with 62 percent of the voter over the 34 percent for the Democratic nominee, Freeman. Republican President Donald Trump did almost as well, winning 62 percent of the vote to Democrat Hillary Clinton’s 35 percent.

So the Republican heads back to the field with more than $100,000 at his disposal and plans to raise more, all while facing a Democrat with low name recognition in a deep red district.

Personnel note: Allen Ellison announces campaign team

Allen Ellison

Allen Ellison, the replacement Democratic nominee in Florida’s 17th Congressional District, announced a campaign team of staffers with experience working for national campaigns.

The team will be led by campaign manager Daniel Sohn, Haverhill Town Councilman. Ellison said the team boasts experience working on campaign teams for presidential candidates Barack Obama, John Kerry and Martin O’Malley.

“I am excited and confident the team I have assembled will secure a victory on Election Day,” said Ellison “I want to thank the team for joining me on this journey to honor my friend April Freeman.”

Freeman, who won the Democratic nomination in August, died unexpectedly in September. Democratic leaders in the nine-county district named Ellison as replacement nominee last month.

Ellison faces Republican state Sen. Greg Steube in this heavily Republican district. Ballots, printed before Freeman’s death, will have her name on the ballot, but votes for Freeman will count toward Ellison.

“I need everyone’s help to make sure that when we cross the finish line on Nov. 6 that we win for the people of CD 17 and the Freeman family. A vote for April is a Vote for Allen,” Ellison said.

Sohn briefly considered running for Agriculture Commissioner last year. Then a district aide to Palm Beach Soil & Water Conservation District Supervisor Pat Edmonson, he previously ran for the board himself and once considered a run for the Dania Beach City Commission.

Aisha Alayande, executive director of Drug-Free Highlands, will serve as scheduling director.

Anthony Dowling, an Indiantown Village Councilman, serves as deputy political director and communications director.

Samantha Gholar, a former journalist and founder of Emerge Sarasota, will be deputy communications director under Dowling.

Kelvin Lindsey, a Bowling Green agent for FEMA and Bobby Norfleet Racing, will be campaign strategist.

Finally, Sonya McGrady, operations and compliance manager with the Progressive Change Campaign Committee, will serve as compliance director.

The race in the district became an open seat after sitting U.S. Rep. Tom Rooney announced earlier this year he would retire.

In 2016, Rooney won with 62 percent of the vote over Freeman, who won 34 percent of the vote.

Steube as of Aug. 8 held $131,941 in cash on hand. He suspended campaign operations temporarily upon Freeman’s death and has remained largely silent since Ellison’s selection as a replacement nominee.

Allen Ellison to host first candidate reception in CD 17

Allen Ellison, the Democratic replacement candidate in Florida’s 17th Congressional District, will host his first public event Sunday in Bowling Green.

The newly minted candidate said he’s ready for the reception and a chance to interact with the public.

“I understand that as a representative, I will have to be open-minded and eager to listen to the hearts and minds of our people and be ready to take up their issues and concerns to the floor of Congress,” Ellison told Florida Politics. “I am ready to be their voice.”

Ellison is running against Republican Greg Steube, a Sarasota state Senator, in the heavily conservative district. Steube boasts $132,000 in cash on hand as Ellison starts essentially from scratch.

This week, Democratic leaders from the district chose Ellison as the replacement nominee after the death of April Freeman, who won the Democratic nomination in August.

“It is unfortunate that it played out this way. April was a fighter and a very fierce competitor,” Ellison said. “She fought tirelessly for what she stood for. I also believe strongly in fighting for the issues of our district and they vary by county.”

The new nominee will need financial resources to compete in the expansive district. Freeman made a personal loan to her campaign to finance her bid and that money has been returned to Freeman’s family. It cannot be used to fund Ellison’s campaign.

Ellison’s first reception will be held from 7 to 10 p.m. at the Streamsong Resort in Bowling Green.

Steube’s campaign has remained silent since Freeman’s death. On the day Freeman’s family announced the news, Steube released a statement saying he would temporarily suspend campaigning.

“My thoughts and prayers are with April Freeman’s family in the wake of her tragic passing,” Steube said. “I respect her service to our community and admire her commitment to the causes she cared about. Out of respect to her memory, next week’s campaign events will be canceled.”

Steube won the Republican primary in August over Charlotte County veteran Bill Akins and state Rep. Julio Gonzalez.

The seat opened this year after the surprise retirement of U.S. Rep. Tom Rooney, an Okeechobee Republican. Rooney in 2016 won this district with 62 percent of the vote over Freeman’s 34 percent.

Democrats choose Allen Ellison to replace April Freeman in CD 17 race

Allen L. Ellison, a policy expert from Sebring, will replace the recently deceased April Freeman as the Democratic nominee in Florida’s 17th Congressional District.

The duty fell on Ellison following a conference call with Democratic leaders throughout the nine counties in the district. Ellison stood out among six applicants to seek the nomination following the unexpected death of Freeman on Sept. 23.

Ellison now plans to travel to Tallahassee and finish any necessary paperwork with the Florida Division of Elections and to pay the $10,400 qualification fee.

“I’m pleased we have a candidate that is ready to step up and do the necessary work,” said JoAnne DeVries, Sarasota Democratic Party chairwoman.

Ellison previously considered running in the district in the past but never qualified as a candidate. “I have actually lived in the district for over 30 years,” he wrote in an email to party leaders.

DeVries said Ellison’s longtime connection to the district impressed party leaders.

It’s been a more complicated process seeking a replacement nominee than it was for Freeman to win her primary in many ways.

The party faced a deadline of noon on Tuesday, but then hopefuls Pam Keith and Roy David Walker, who lost different party primary fights in August, filed a lawsuit challenging a prohibition on candidates running for different offices in the same year. A judge ruled against the candidates today, leaving party leaders to choose among four remaining applicants.

Ultimately, 46 percent of DEC members voting chose Ellison, who won 58 votes. Christopher Cause of Davenport took 32 votes, or 35 percent. Former Congressional candidate Greg Pilkington of Indian Lakes Estates received 20 votes, or 16 percent. Former state House candidate Eileen Game of Avon Park took four votes, or three percent.

Patrick Hurley, chairman of the Charlotte County Democratic Party, saw potential particularly in Keith, a former U.S. Senate candidate with name recognition and someone with the drive to fight in court for the right to run.

But he said Ellison also showed ambition himself. He began campaigning with Democratic executive committee members in the district a week ago.

“He was aggressive in the outreach early in the process,” Hurley says. That included sending a pdf outlining his positions on women’s rights, immigration and other platform issues.

Ellison, born in Avon Park and a Hardee High School graduate, serves as president and CEO for the Lauderdale Lakes-based Center for Economic and Policy Development.

He’s also the editor of the online curated news journal The State of The Union Daily, which compiled mostly political stories.

He will face Republican state Sen. Greg Steube, who remains the heavy favorite in this Republican district. The seat opened up when incumbent Rep. Tom Rooney, an Okeechobee Republican, announced his retirement earlier this year.

Judge: Pam Keith, Roy David Walker can’t replace April Freeman

A federal judge denied Pam Keith and Roy David Walker the chance to run for Congress in Florida’s 17th Congressional district, where Democratic leaders must pick a replacement for the late April Freeman.

Now party leaders will hold an emergency meeting to choose who faces Republican candidate Greg Steube in the Nov. 6 general election.

Keith and Walker on Friday filed a complaint in federal court asking that a judge determine the candidates, who lost separate party primaries earlier this year, be eligible as federal nominees despite a state law preventing candidates who have already run in a calendar year from seeking a separate office.

On Monday, U.S. District Court Judge Elizabeth Kovachevich ruled against the plaintiffs, saying they failed to put forth a reasonable argument to delay normal election proceedings.

“Indeed, recognizing the time-sensitive nature of this matter and in anticipation of these arguments, the Court conducted extensive research, on an expedited basis, to ensure that it could properly address this matter,” the judge wrote.

“But, although the Court was prepared for Plaintiffs, Plaintiffs were not prepared for the Court.”

Keith this year sought the Democratic nomination in Florida’s 18th Congressional District in August and lost to Lauren Baer. Walker, formerly a candidate for Agriculture Commissioner, lost the Democratic nomination to Nikki Fried.

Keith said on social media she understood the judge’s ruling and wished the ultimate replacement nominee “nothing but the best.”

Keith and Walker were among six individuals who applied to be replacement nominees for April Freeman, who won the Democratic nomination for Congress in the 17th District but died unexpectedly on Sept. 23.

State law calls for the Florida Democratic Party to consult with county Democratic chairs in the nine counties that make up the 17th District on a replacement nominee. A name must be submitted to the Florida Division of Elections by noon tomorrow.

County chairs will hold a conference call with four eligible candidates, including:

— Eileen Game of Avon Park, who ran for state House in District 42 in 2012;

— Allen Ellison of Sebring, chairman of the Center for Economic & Policy Development;

— Greg Pilkington of Indian Lakes Estates, who previously ran in Florida’s 15th Congressional District but withdrew before the primary;

— and Christopher Cause of Davenport.

The call will begin at 9 p.m., and participants hope to make a decision this evening.

The ultimate nominee must pay a $10,400 candidate filing fee for the race.

Freeman’s name will still appear on the ballot, but once party leaders select a new candidate, election officials will inform district voters through a notice with their mail-in ballots or posted at polling places that votes for Freeman will count toward the replacement nominee.

Lawsuit delays decision on April Freeman replacement

A lawsuit by politicians Pam Keith and Roy David Walker postponed a decision to replace deceased congressional candidate April Freeman on the November ballot. But a Tuesday deadline looms.

The Florida Democratic Party held a conference call with Democratic county chairs today scheduled to discuss a replacement nominee for Freeman, who died unexpectedly last Sunday night. But a judge’s order stopped any decision on Saturday.

Freeman in August won the Democratic nomination in Florida’s 17th Congressional district. She faced Republican Greg Steube, a Sarasota area state Senator, in the heavily Republican district. Steube cancelled all campaign activity for a week after Freeman’s unexpected death.

Applicants to replace Freeman included Keith and Walker, but a state statute excludes anyone who attempted to seek another public office in the same year from consideration.

Keith this year sought the Democratic nomination in Florida’s 18th Congressional District in August and lost to Lauren Baer. Walker, formerly a candidate for Agriculture Commissioner, lost the Democratic nomination to Nikki Fried.

The two candidates filed a lawsuit Friday in federal court arguing the law disqualifying them should be ruled unconstitutional.

“Running for office is not a crime,” reads a motion by plaintiffs. “It is not an action that should be discouraged. It in no way renders a person unfit to speak on behalf of others, contemplate legislation or carry out any other duties of a member of Congress.”

Federal Judge Elizabeth A. Kovachevich will hold a hearing on Monday and expects to issue a ruling quickly.

JoAnne DeVries, chairman of the Sarasota Democratic Party, says county chairs could convene as soon as Monday evening to make a decision. The 17th district spans portions of nine counties: Sarasota, Charlotte, Polk, Highlands, Lee, DeSoto, Okeechobee, Hardee and Glades.

State law calls for the Florida Democratic Party to consult with county chairs to choose a replacement nominee. The party must submit a name to the Division of Elections by 5 p.m. Tuesday or all votes for Freeman will not be counted for a new nominee.

To date, DeVries said, county chairs have not recieved a complete list applicants, who had to submit interest before a Friday deadline. But press accounts show Keith and Walker aren’t the only hopefuls impacted by the state law.

Todd Truax, who ran in Florida’s 19th Congressional District this year, also applied for consideration, according to The News-Press.

Bill Pollard, who lost the nomination to Freeman in August, told Florida Politics after Freeman’s death that he would consider running if the party wanted him, but says he did not apply because he could not pay the required $10,400 filing fee and had “insufficient support.”

Ballots have already been set for the Nov. 6 general election, so Freeman’s name will appear on the ballot. Elections officials say once a replacement gets named, notices will be sent with vote-by-mail ballots and posted in polling locations explaining votes for Freeman will count for the new nominee.

Tributes pour in for congressional candidate April Freeman, who died unexpectedly Sunday

Democratic U.S. House candidate April Freeman died unexpectedly Sunday night, according to her family.

She was running in Florida’s 17th Congressional District.

Freeman’s husband David posted the news Monday on Facebook.

“It’s with great sadness that I feel I must inform all of you that my beloved wife April passed away suddenly last night,” he wrote. “To all of her family and friends here on Facebook, my heart aches with you.”

Florida Democratic Party Chair Terrie Rizzo also released a statement on the news.

“April put her heart and soul into her community — and was dedicated to making a better future for all Floridians,” Rizzo said.

“Just last night she was in the office, making calls and working to get out the vote,” she added. “Her work ethic and passion was an inspiration to all of us. It is a tremendous loss to the Democratic Party and to all who knew her.

“Our hearts break for her family and love ones, who are grieving her loss.”

Freeman on Aug. 28 won the Democratic nomination over Bill Pollard.

It’s the second time she’s run in the district. She also ran against incumbent Rep. Tom Rooney in 2016. Rooney this year announced his retirement, and Freeman had hoped for a better shot at victory in the heavily Republican district with an open seat.

“We have a real shot at this,” she said a couple weeks ago. “Two years ago we made Tom Rooney spend $1 million in the last weeks of the campaign and no one has ever done that before.”

In between Congressional runs, Freeman ran for Cape Coral mayor. And in 2014, she ran in Florida’s 19th District after the resignation of Trey Radel.

She previously worked in TV production, including on HBO’s “Hemingway and Gelhorn,” and she ran her own political consulting firm, Freeman & Associates.

Later on Monday, her Republican opponent — state Sen. Greg Steube — said he was cancelling all campaign events next week “out of respect.”

As for the business of the upcoming election, ballots have already been printed out, but state law allows for a replacement nominee.

The Florida Democratic Party in coming days will work with county chairs and executive committees on consideration of any nominees who come forward.

After a nominee in named, election officials will post a note in voting booths and send it with in mail-in-ballots that votes for Freeman will now count for the designated nominee, according to Sarasota County Supervisor of Elections Ron Turner.

JoAnne DeVries, chairman of the Sarasota Democratic Party, said Freeman will be missed. “She was such a sweetie,” DeVries said. “She loved being a candidate even if her health got in the way in the last few months.”

Pollard, whom Freeman beat in the Democratic primary, said: “Although we were contenders for the same nomination, I am saddened. We shared mostly the same political ideals and we a few times talked on the sidelines about them. My condolences go out to her loved ones, especially her husband, David.”

Freeman was 54. WINK News reports she is survived by her husband, two children and two grandchildren.

Other politicians in the region also expressed sadness at the news.

David Holden, Florida’s 19th Congressional District:

David Shapiro, Florida’s 16th Congressional District:

Sean Shaw, Attorney General candidate:

Ruta Jouniari, Sarasota County Commission candidate and former state House candidate:

Erika Lundquist, former Manatee County Commission candidate:

greg steube

Greg Steube reloading campaign funds with Oct. 2 fundraiser in Sarasota

Sarasota state Sen. Greg Steube cruised through the Republican primary for Florida’s 17th Congressional District, but now it’s time to refill his war chest for the upcoming general election showdown with Cape Coral Democrat April Freeman.

To that end, Alan Jay Wildstein and Ashley Pierce are hosting a fundraising reception for the 40-year-old Republican’s congressional campaign in Sarasota next month.

The Oct. 2 reception will run from 5:30 p.m. to 7 p.m., but it’ll take an RSVP to Kelly Dowd via Kelly@ElectGregSteube.com to get an address for the event. The invitation lists a suggested contribution of $1,000 to get in the door.

In the Aug. 28 primary election, Steube garnered more than 60 percent of the vote while Venice state Rep. Julio Gonzalez was the pick for 18 percent of Republican voters, putting him in third place behind lesser-known candidate Bill Akins, who received 19 percent of the vote.

Gonzalez blamed his resounding defeat on several oppo dumps by the Steube campaign, including unearthing some “Never Trump” comments made by Gonzalez during U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio’s doomed presidential campaign in 2016.

“My character was assassinated,” Gonzalez said. “It’s really sad that tonight deceit and lies prevailed in the political discourse.”

On the Democratic side, Freeman scored a 77-23 victory over Bill Pollard though she faces much steeper odds in the general election for CD 17, an expansive and solidly Republican seat where President Donald Trump defeated Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton 62-35 two years ago.

When it comes to fundraising, Steube had raised more than $525,000 for his campaign account and had about $132,000 banked as of Aug. 8. Steube has also been the beneficiary of a load of spending by outside groups. In July, Club for Growth Action and Liberty and Leadership Fund said they had $627,000 banked to boost Steube’s congressional bid and that they had already put $400,000 of that cash behind broadcast and cable ads.

Freeman, meanwhile, had raised just $28,265 and had $4,283 left to spend through the same date.

CD 17 is open this year thanks to current GOP U.S. Rep. Tom Rooney’s decision to not seek re-election this year. The district sprawls across parts of Sarasota, Lee and Polk counties as well as the whole of Charlotte, DeSoto, Glades, Hardee, Highlands and Okeechobee counties.

Rooney has held the seat since it was redrawn ahead of the 2012 elections. Freeman was also the Democratic nominee two years ago when Rooney won re-election with 62 percent of the vote.

Election Day is Nov. 6. The fundraiser invitation is below.

greg steube

Greg Steube wins Republican nomination by a landslide in CD17

State Sen. Greg Stuebe emerged victorious from a hard-fought Republican primary in Florida’s 17th Congressional District. With most precincts reporting, Steube had 62 percent of the vote compared to Charlotte County veteran Bill Akins‘s 19 percent and state Rep. Julio Gonzalez’s 18 percent.

Steube had been backed by conservative groups like the National Rifle Association and Club for Growth, which issued a congratulatory statement. “Club for Growth’s PACs were proud to play a role in Greg Steube’s victory tonight,” Club for Growth President David McIntosh said.

“As a state legislator, Greg was a staunch pro-growth conservative who wasn’t afraid of taking on both parties, and his courage and principle will serve him well in Washington. We fully expect Greg to be a leader in Congress in the fight for economic freedom.”

The Republican contest pitted against one another former allies who represented the Sarasota area in the Florida Legislature. For most of the election season, the race felt like a clash between Steube and Gonzalez, and Gonzalez raised far more money than Akins despite performing poorly in late-reporting, largely rural portions of the district.

Steube now heads for a general election battle with Democrat April Freeman, the 2016 Democratic nominee as well, who won a primary contest against opponent Bill Pollard Tuesday night with 77 percent of the vote.

But in a district where President Donald Trump beat Democrat Hillary Clinton by 27 percentage points, the Republican battle has been the high-stakes contest in the region.

The Republican contest became one of the more closely watched primaries in the state after U.S. Rep. Tom Rooney in March announced his retirement.

Steube, a Sarasota Republican elected to the state Senate in 2016, previously served six years in the Florida House. In that time, he developed a reputation as one of the strongest advocates for gun rights in Tallahassee, advocating for concealed carry permit holders to be allowed to bring weapons into gun-free businesses and even courthouses.

Akins entered the race first, intending to challenge Rooney in the primary. Through the race, he delivered especially hard critiques of Steube, questioning his combat record and raising the fact Steube still does not live in the 17th.

Gonzalez, a Venice physician by trade who also holds a law degree, has served in the state House since 2010, where he has focused on health care policy as he bolstered his social conservative credentials. He admitted feeling bruised and uncertain if he had any political future after the difficult contest.

“My character was assassinated,” Gonzalez said. “It’s really sad that tonight deceit and lies prevailed in the political discourse.”

That’s not the only mud thrown in the race. Gonzalez criticized Steube for his Congressional lobbying work with Becker and Poliakoff, which represents Sarasota County as a client.

Meanwhile, Gonzalez saw details of a malpractice lawsuit turn into newspaper headlines. Steube also highlighted a cadre of “Never Trump” comments made by Gonzalez during U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio’s doomed presidential campaign in 2016.

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