Dennis Ross – Florida Politics
Ross Spano

Ross Spano picks up Marco Rubio, Pam Bondi endorsements in CD 15

Republican state Rep. Ross Spano of Tampa received what could be a major boost Thursday in his six-way Republican Primary for Florida’s 15th Congressional District with an endorsement by U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio.

Earlier, Spano’s campaign released a poll showing he was 12 points ahead of his closest competitor, former state Rep. Neil Combee of Polk City. But with six Republicans running for their Party’s nod to replace retiring U.S. Rep. Dennis Ross of Lakeland, someone could when with only 25 percent of the vote, making the race still a tossup.

The Rubio endorsement could be an aid in getting higher than that 25 percent.

“It is certainly an honor and I think it validates the very hard work done by our grassroots organizing,“ Spano said. “I am more energized than ever after this.”

Rubio said Spano has a proven history of advancing conservative values and his credentials as a member of the Florida House.

Spano also has picked up the endorsement from Attorney General Pam Bondi as well as three Polk County Commissioners, in part because of what they called Combee’s meddling in the election to choose his successor to his House seat.

CD 15 includes portions of Hillsborough, Polk and Lake counties. The winner of the Aug. 28 primary will face the winner of the three-way Democratic primary in the general election.

Ross Spano

Ross Spano leads Republican field in CD 15, poll shows

Republican state Rep. Ross Spano has a double-digit lead in the race for Florida’s 15th Congressional District according to a fresh poll of primary voters in the tri-county district.

The St. Pete Polls survey found Spano with 31.6 percent support among CD 15 Republicans, 12 points ahead of former GOP Auburndale state Rep. Neil Combee.

The race is far from over, however, with “undecided” being the choice of 37.4 percent of voters seven weeks out from the Aug. 28 primary.

Still, the new poll is a shift from late May, when the same pollster found Spano, of Dover, with 29-23 percent over Combee. That lead fell within the margin of error. The new one does not.

Spano and Combee have been considered the leading candidates on the Republican side since the field settled in the wake of current U.S. Rep. Dennis Ross’ mid-April announcement that he wouldn’t seek another term. That preliminary status had a lot to do with the geographic makeup of CD 15.

About half of CD 15 Republicans live in northeastern Hillsborough County, and Spano represents much of that area in the state House.

Another 40 percent live in northern Polk County, which Combee represented for five years before resigning in November to accept a presidential appointment with the U.S. Department of Agriculture. He is also a former Polk County Commissioner.

The remaining 10 percent of CD 15 Republicans live in southern Lake County.

Also running in the primary race are Lakeland contractor Sean Harper, Brandon agribusinessman Danny Kushmer and Lakeland mental health practitioner Ed Shoemaker in the primary race.

Shoemaker was the No. 3 candidate in the poll with 4.2 percent support, followed by Harper with 3 percent and Kushmer with 2.3 percent. Another 2.1 percent of Republican voters said they were supporting Curt Rogers, who did not qualify for the ballot.

Though he polled in last place, Kushmer has surged on the endorsement front this week, nabbing support from Bartow Commissioner James Clements and staunchly pro-life group Florida Right to Life. And he tacked on another endorsement, this time from Lake Wales Mayor Eugene Fultz, as the CD 15 poll was released.

“Danny, I have worked with you long enough to know that you are a man of integrity. I believe that you will represent the 15th District well. You have my support,” the Polk County pol said in a news release.

Whoever emerges from the Republican primary will go up against the winner of the Democratic primary contest between Kristen Carlson, Andrew Learned and Ray Pena. The district is rated “likely Republican” by Sabato’s Crystal Ball, the prediction newsletter from University of Virginia political science professor Larry Sabato.

Also included in the poll was a measure of how CD 15 Republicans view President Donald Trump, and a commanding 89.5 percent said they approved of the controversial commander-in-chief. Only 4.5 percent dissented, while 6 percent were on the fence.

The St. Pete Polls surveyed voters July 8 using an automated phone call polling system. Results were weighted to account for proportional differences between the respondents’ demographics and the demographics of the active Republican primary voter population in CD 15.

The poll had a sample size of 532 Republican voters with a margin of error of plus or minus 4.2 percentage points.

Danny Kushmer

Danny Kushmer adds endorsements for CD 15 bid

Republican Danny Kushmer picked up two endorsements on Friday for his bid to succeed retiring U.S. Rep. Dennis Ross in Florida’s 15th Congressional District.

The first came in from Bartow Commissioner James Clements.

“When endorsing someone, you want a person you believe in and their ideas and their solutions align with yours. I’ve known Danny Kushmer for over 12 years now and I believe in his abilities to set Washington DC straight,” he said.

Clements’ joins fellow Bartow Commissioner Trish Pfeiffer in backing Kushmer. The Polk County support is a major coup for South Hillsborough resident as one of his chief opponents in the Republican primary is former Auburndale state Rep. Neil Combee, who locked up a lot of support in his home turf in the early goings of the race.

“I am honored by the outpouring of support for my campaign and truly humbled by the support of Commissioner Clements. I look forward to working in Congress to insure local government can do the work they need without duplicative and unnecessary interference from Washington. It is time for new ideas in Washington DC,” Kushmer said.

Also announcing support for Kushmer was Florida Right to Life, a staunchly pro-life conservative group that opposes any abortion, regardless of circumstance. In an email, the group said Kushmer earned its “A” rating and that they recommended a vote for him in the five-way Republican primary.

“Being someone that was adopted, I have always held strong to the belief that all life is precious and should be protected. While others may feel we should have a choice in life or death, I do not. My birth mother, whoever and wherever she may be chose life, and my parents chose me,” Kushmer said.

Kushmer faces Combee, Sean Harper, Ed Shoemaker, and Dover state Rep. Ross Spano in the Republican primary. None of the Republicans who made the ballot have filed a quarterly finance report, since they all entered the race until after Ross announced his retirement in mid-April.

Also running for the seat are Democrats Kristen CarlsonAndrew Learned and Ray Pena as well as three write-in candidates.

CD 15 is split between Hillsborough and Polk counties, with about 10 percent of the district’s voters living in Lake County. The district is rated “likely Republican” by Sabato’s Crystal Ball, the prediction newsletter from University of Virginia political science professor Larry Sabato.

The primary election is Aug. 28.

Internal poll gives Kristen Carlson lead among CD 15 Dems

Lakeland attorney Kristen Carlson entered the Democratic primary for Florida’s 15th Congressional District only two days before the deadline, but a poll released by her staff shows her ahead of her two opponents, each of whom has been running for the spot for a year or more.

The poll’s frequency count shows Carlson ahead with 25 to 14 percent for Andrew Learned of Valrico, with 10 percent for Ray Pena of Lakeland. Six-percent said, “someone else” (at least two other candidates dropped out before qualifying). Forty-five percent were undecided.

The poll was conducted June 14 -17 by Greenberg Quinlan Rosner Research, using 401 residents determined to be likely Democratic primary voters in CD 15. The margin of sampling error is near 5 percentage points. Live interviewers conducted the poll.

According to Source Watch, the Washington D.C.-based Greenberg Quinlan is a political research and campaign firm that works closely with the Democratic Party and has experience internationally, as well.

Researchers said that when voters learned of the three candidates after the initial question, Carlson’s numbers rose higher.

Carlson campaign manager, Conor Hurley, said the online biography posted by each candidate was read in its entirety before asking each voter for their preference a second time.

“I looked at the same things they put out and couldn’t figure out where that came from,” Learned said. “The campaign has barely started.”

EMILY’s List is endorsing Carlson. Her finances show a list of hefty donations from many regular donors.

Learned also has the support of several Democratic Party officials, including U.S. Rep. Kathy Castor, who has helped him in fundraising. Former candidate Greg Williams of Lakeland left the race to publicly endorse and work for Learned.

The rush by Democrats is the pending retirement of CD 15 Republican incumbent Congressman Dennis Ross of Lakeland and their assessment that the district is winnable.

The Democratic winner of the Aug. 28 primary elections goes on to face the winner of the heavily crowded Republican primary, which has six candidates in the race.

Democratic hopeful Ray Pena hits CD 15 with old-school handshaking, retail politics

Ray Pena, of Lakeland, is running for the Democratic Party’s nomination for Florida’s 15th Congressional District as the first Hispanic-American to seek the district located in portions of Hillsborough, Polk and Lake counties.

He is doing it the old-fashioned way, handshaking every person he meets and appearing at all public candidate meetings. He enumerates the issues that he says are ignored by the other party, i.e., critical highway infrastructure needs, the total lack of interest in public education funding by the administration and repeal of the Republican Budget Act.

While both his Democratic Primary opponents, Andrew Learned of Valrico and Kristen Carlson of Lakeland have campaign war chests of more than $100,000, Pena reported campaign funds of less than $5,000 in the most recent report of the Federal Elections Commission.

Perhaps it is the lack of big-time contributors or the highly visible primary fight between Learned and Carlson over who should get the Democratic Party’s support that Pena is often unknown in spite of all his groundwork.

“I have been running for a year and a half,” Pena told Florida Politics Wednesday. “Do you know who was the first media outlet to sit down for a face-to-face interview with me? You are. Today.”

Learned has been running for a year, but has gained more attention now that Republican incumbent U.S. Rep. Dennis Ross of Lakeland is stepping down from his Congressional District 15 seat and Democrats believe it is vulnerable.

The son of a Cuban mother and Puerto Rican father, Pena is a veteran of the Coast Guard and a 33-year veteran of the San Jose Police Department, retiring as a detective. He owns General Aviation LLC in Winter Haven. He is a commercial helicopter pilot

Pena embodies the belief that a person can still put themselves up for election and run on their ideas and by meeting people at post offices, the tax collector’s office, and small-town gatherings. But to meet the demands for electronic media and newspapers, big money is often a determining factor.

Unable to hold large fundraisers with Congresswoman Kathy Castor hosting as Learned has done or to have a group like EMILY’s List endorse and notify their heavy donors as was done for Carlson, Pena has gone on a marathon handshaking campaign.

“Quite seriously, I have met close to 30,000 people in the district since I started in February 2017,” he said.

One issue he says he would fight for in Congress is the repeal of the Jobs Act, which he said is unfair to middle class working people.

“Infrastructure must be addressed. I-4 is the most dangerous highway in the nation. Between 2011 and 2017, 164 people were killed on that roadway,” he said.

In education, more money is needed in every state, but particularly in Florida.

”I am against any tax dollars going to charter schools whether for profit or public. We must start investing in teachers and our school kids,” he said. “We also need to create tuition-free education for our public universities’ undergraduate programs. It’s done in the San Francisco area, New York City, and others, and students are required to stay in their area and work for a period of four years.”

And if the Democratic Primary isn’t rough enough, the winner will face the winner of a six-way Republican Primary for District 15.

“I am not worried,” he said of his opponents’ money, both Democrats and Republicans. “When people see a genuine person, they gravitate toward them. I would tell all candidates and elected officials everywhere, stop your maliciousness and just be honest to the people.”

“Ours is a genuine grassroots campaign. We certainly have the deep roots, but are waiting for the grass,” he said.

#14 on list of Tampa Bay’s Most Powerful Politicians — Tom Lee

State Sen. Tom Lee of Senate District 20 generated plenty of buzz over the last year as Tampa Bay politicos speculated his next steps: a run for state chief financial officer? Perhaps a go at outgoing Congressman Dennis Ross’s open seat?

But the Thonotosassa Republican went with none of the above — and that could shape up to be a wise choice given the current political climate.

He was elected to the Senate in 2012 and later re-elected in 2016. He had previously served on the Senate from 1996 to 2006, including as Senate president from 2004 to 2006. He ran for CFO and lost to Alex Sink in 2006 — so it makes sense that another statewide run in a year that might not treat Republicans all that well wouldn’t appeal to him.

Lee’s district, SD 20, consists of parts of Hillsborough, Pasco and Polk counties.

Assuming he stays in his current seat, Lee will remain a key moderating voice in the Senate.

Well-liked by Republicans and Democrats alike, Lee is chair of the Senate Committee on Community Affairs, and sits on five other committees, including Education as well as Ethics and Elections.

He won praise during his tenure on the Constitution Revision Commission with his proposed greyhound racing ban. Popular with just about everyone but members of the racing industry, it was one of a handful of CRC-passed measures that will be on the November ballot.

And he’s not afraid to buck his party. Earlier this year, Lee criticized the controversial education bill, calling a measure targeting teachers’ unions “mean-spirited.” He offered multiple amendments to soften that provision. When they didn’t take, he voted against it.

Lee may not try to climb the political ladder this year, but with his independent spirit and his obvious drive, the future ought to look pretty bright for him.

Lee ranked No. 10 in 2017.

For a complete explanation of how this list was created and who made up the panel that amassed it, please read here.

Former Polk County sheriff backs Neil Combee for CD 15

Auburndale Republican Neil Combee has added another Polk County backer in his campaign to succeed retiring U.S. Rep. Dennis Ross in Florida’s 15th Congressional District.

Former Polk County Sheriff Lawrence Crow on Monday joined a dozen other current and former Polk County officials in endorsing Combee, a former state representative and Polk County commissioner.

“I’ve known and worked with the Combee family for decades having served with Neil’s father in the Lakeland Police force. I can say without a doubt, Neil Combee has the honesty and integrity to represent the values of the hard working people of this Congressional district. As a former Sheriff I trust Neil Combee to uphold the Constitution, respect our sworn law enforcement officers and keep the United States a place where the rule of law matters,” said Crow, who served as Polk Sheriff from 1987 until his retirement in 2005.

Crow’s endorsement is the 21st for the Combee campaign since he announced his CD 15 run in mid-April. In addition to the dozen Polk County nods, Combee has picked up a handful of endorsements from Hillsborough County and Lake County elected officials.

“I’m proud to have this endorsement from Fmr. Sheriff Crow. It is humbling to have the support of several law enforcement leaders in the district, and I will work everyday in Washington to make sure they have the support they need to successfully protect and defend us,” Combee said.

Combee faces Dover state Rep. Ross SpanoSean HarperDanny KushmerCurt Rogers and Ed Shoemaker in the Republican Primary. Also running for the seat are Democrats Kristen CarlsonAndrew Learned and Ray Pena as well as three write-in candidates.

A poll from late last month showed Spano leading Combee in the crowded primary 29-23 with one third undecided. None of the other Republican candidates cracked 5 percent support in that poll.

About half of CD 15’s Republican voters live in Hillsborough County and another two-fifths live in Polk while a small slice lives in Lake County. The district is rated “likely Republican” by Sabato’s Crystal Ball, the prediction newsletter from University of Virginia political science professor Larry Sabato.

Last one in; first one with votes, CD 15 candidate says

Republican Sean Harper believes that, in the era of Donald Trump, business expertise will win out over political experience.

That’s why the Lakeland contractor is running against five other Republicans for Florida’s 15th Congressional District, two of whom have experience in the state Legislature.

Harper entered the race May 2, two days before the filing deadline to fill the seat being left vacant by U.S. Rep Dennis Ross, a Lakeland Republican who is not running again. That was late, even by the three-week notice Ross gave.

It’s a crowded field with six Republicans running in the Aug. 28 party primary and three candidates in the Democratic Primary. In addition to Harper, the Republican field includes former state Rep. Neil Combee of Polk City, Danny Kushmer of Brandon, Curt Rogers of Dover, Ed Shoemaker of Lakeland and state Rep. Ross Spano of Riverview

It would appear to be a daunting task, but Harper already has three websites up and is building a campaign staff. The featured picture is of Harper’s campaign kickoff and a banner proclaiming “Conservative Outsider.”

His business experience will win over the public recognition of the politicians, he said.

“I have met with business leaders in Polk, Hillsborough and Lake counties many of whom are in construction and agriculture (two economic backbones of CD 15) They want someone who signs paychecks and understands the process of managing a business,” he said.

Harper said he plans to go to Washington to contribute and bring a business management to government and then return, “As our Founding Fathers intended.”

Despite his moniker as a conservative outsider, Harper makes his loyalties clear: “I like the job President Trump is doing and we need business logic in Washington, which is why I am running.”

The president’s promise to improve infrastructure is crucial to CD 15 and the I-4 corridor, he said.

Sean Harper and Adam Putnam. (Image via Facebook)

On his Facebook age, Harper makes it clear where he stands on the recent reports of Publix and the Lakeland-based supermarket’s massive donations to the gubernatorial campaign of Adam Putnam.

“Publix is a major part of this district and I’m proud to have them here. I stand with Publix, Adam Putnam and the NRA. My family and I are in Publix several times a week and do not plan on switching.”

A lifelong Harper has been a highly successful contractor, running Harper Construction, noting during a recent interview the company has seven houses under construction as well as commercial buildings. And it is this expertise needed in federal government, he said.

“Federal regulations, banking regulations and financing rules that often don’t make sense have really pushed small businesses to the edge,” he said.

But to get through the entangled rules, he first must get through the entangled Republican primary. Spano has already won the endorsement of Attorney General Pam Bondi, county commissioners in Polk and Hillsborough counties as well as state House members. Combee also has House member endorsements, as well as those of several Polk County mayors and from former state Sen. J.D. Alexander.

Ross Spano

Ross Spano leading CD 15 primary, but one-third undecided

While new polling gives state Rep. Ross Spano a six-point lead in the Republican primary for Florida’s 15th Congressional District, a third of voters surveyed say they are unsure.

St. Pete Polls conducted the survey May 25-27 which has the Dover Republican leading fellow state Rep. Neil Combee, 29-23 percent. The poll asked 494 likely primary voters in the Central Florida district that opened after Lakeland Republican Dennis Ross decided not to seek a fifth term.

Nearly 34 percent of voters polled are undecided. Spano currently represents east Hillsborough County in House District 59; Combee, a former state lawmaker from Polk City, represented HD 39 until November 2017, when he resigned to serve as Florida state director of the USDA Farm Service Agency.

Also in the single digits are Republicans Sean Harper (4 percent), Danny Kushmer (4 percent), Curt Rogers (2 percent) and Ed Shoemaker (4 percent).

Democrats in the race include Kristen Carlson, Andrew Learned and Ray Pena as well as three write-in candidates.

A majority of CD 15 voters are in either Hillsborough or Polk counties, though about 10 percent are in Lake County. Sabato’s Crystal Ball, the political newsletter from University of Virginia political science professor Larry Sabato, rates the district “likely Republican.”

The poll had a 4.4 percent margin of error and a 95 percent confidence level.

Hitting the ground collecting in CD 15

Kristen Carlson of Lakeland entered the Democratic Primary for Florida’s 15th Congressional District just over two weeks ago and has reported campaign donations of more than $100,000 already.

Her staff said most of it came in during the first 13 days.

Carlson, a former General Counsel for the Florida Department of Citrus, current counsel for the Florida Juice Producers Association and lawyer in the Tampa firm of MacFarlane Ferguson & McMullen, didn’t enter the race until May 2, Two days before the deadline to qualify for federal office.

The primaries for both parties in the district that includes portions of Hillsborough, Polk and Lake counties gained more candidates and more early activity after the incumbent, Republican Congressman Dennis Ross of Lakeland announced he would not seek re-election.

Carlson faces two others in the Democratic Primary, Navy veteran and school owner Andrew Learned of Valrico and retired California detective and aviation group owner Raymond Pena of Winter Haven, both of whom have been running for a year or more.

Almost everyone in the Republican Primary race for the seat has been running for less than a month in the traditionally Republican district. Ross announced his retirement just weeks before federal qualifying to get on the ballot ended.

“I am humbled by the outpouring of support we have received in this early stage,” Carlson said in an emailed quote. “Voters know that we need a Representative who will work for the people of the 15th District to lower health care costs, create good paying jobs, and cut taxes for the middle class, and I am honored so many believe I am that person.”

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