Kelli Stargel – Florida Politics

Neil Combee makes it official; announces run for Dennis Ross’ seat

Former State Rep. Neil Combee, a Polk City Republican, announced Tuesday that he will seek Florida’s 15th Congressional District seat left open by U.S. Rep. Dennis Ross.

Ross, a Republican from Lakeland, announced last week he will not seek re-election to the post he has held since January 2011.

Combee, 58, made his announcement at noon following his resignation as state executive officer for the Gainesville-based Farm Service Agency, a USDA agency serving Florida and the Virgin Islands and notifying his staff.

He resigned as representative for House District 39 in November when he was appointed to the federal post by President Donald Trump.

“I am a loyal supporter of President Trump and the great strides he has made for this country. While I had to think carefully about resigning my post, I can better help him and his programs by being in Congress,” Combee said.

The Combee family name is well-known in Polk County, which makes up 40 percent of the congressional district, with such names as the historic Combee Settlement neighborhood and Combee Road.

Combee is a farmer, rancher and real estate executive and served 16 years as a Polk County Commissioner. Upon leaving in 2004, his fellow commissioners named the new county administration building for him.

He served on the governing board of the Southwest Florida Water Management District from 2005 until 2012 when he was elected to the Florida House.

Combee said CD 15 is a perfect fit since a large portion is rural and suburban and has a great deal of agriculture.

The district includes Polk County which makes up 40 percent while Hillsborough contains about 50 percent with Lake County making up roughly 10 percent of the district.

Pundits had for a long time before Ross’ announcement had said after him, the district likely would be controlled by Hillsborough voters.

“With Polk and Lake counties this is a 50-50 split, but I also have great history with the eastern part of Hillsborough with friends and associates for a long time,” he said.

Six Democrats have already opened campaigns for the seat before Ross’ announcement of his retirement. Democratic officials say that the district is winnable this year for a Democrat because of the controversies surrounding the very president to whom Combee has pledged his strong support.

But the district in some form has been represented by a Republican since then Rep. Andy Ireland of Winter Haven switched to the Republican Party in 1984.

Polk County Republican Party Chair JC Martin said he has no doubt a Polk County Republican will win the primary and the general election.

“Polk County’s favorite son (Commissioner of Agriculture) Adam Putnam will be on the ballot, and that is worth extra turnout from the Polk County side,” Martin said of Putnam’s run for governor.

Among those prominent Republicans also interested in Ross’ seat includes state Rep. Ross Spano of Dover, who is expected to announce he is switching from campaigning for Florida Attorney General to mount a run for CD 15.

Tuesday afternoon, WMNF radio reported Spano is pulling out of the AG race, and intents to enter the race for Congress. He has not yet officially filed.

Spano was behind the resolution in the last Legislative Session that declared pornography a “public health risk.” The measure recognized the health risk caused by explicit material, and recognized a need for “education, prevention, research and policy change to protect citizens of this state.”

Speculation is that state Sen. Tom Lee of Brandon is studying a run.

Also officially in the race: Loretta Leah Lax Miller of Clermont and Curtis Ralph Rogers of Dover.

Another official in the Polk County Republican Party, family counselor Ed Shoemaker of Lakeland, announced last week that he will run for the seat.

Danny Kushmer, Executive Director of International Responsible Farming Council, headquartered in Hillsborough County, also announced Tuesday that he will run for the seat as a Republican. The council is a not-for-profit corporation to tell the American farmer’s story through certification and participation in best management practices to ensure use of the latest food safety protocols.

Former state Rep. Seth McKeel and state Sen. Kelli Stargel, both Lakeland Republicans, are highly rumored as potential candidates but have said they will not run for the post.

Neil Combee teases big announcement for Tuesday

Former Republican state Rep. Neil Combee said he’ll make a “big announcement” on Tuesday, likely a run for Congress.

“Stay tuned HIGH NOON tomorrow we make a big announcement! I am forever grateful to the folks in my community, this region and most recently this country as a strong supporter of President [Donald] Trump and his agenda for America,” Combee told Florida Politics in a statement.

“Now, if we’re to keep America great, we need leaders who will stand with the President and his vision for restoring the promise of the American dream. I believe there is a more direct way I can help support the President and his vision and I plan on sharing tomorrow at noon.”

Combee’s “more direct way” is almost certainly a run for Florida’s 15th Congressional District, which is opening up in the fall due to the retirement of U.S. Rep. Dennis Ross.

Ross is the third Republican member of the Florida delegation to announce his retirement since the 2016 elections. Last year, CD 27 U.S. Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen announced she would retire, and CD 17 U.S. Rep. Tom Rooney made the call in late February.

It’s only been a few months since Combee’s Thanksgiving announcement he would leave the Florida House to take a new job as Florida State Director of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Farm Service Agency. U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue appointed him to the position.

It’ll be another two weeks before voters decide on his successor, likely Republican Josie Tomkow, in House District 39.

Combee, an Auburndale Republican, hinted at a possible run over the weekend.

“Don’t ever sell your saddle. You never know what tomorrow brings,” he said in a Facebook post. A Republican consultant close to him said that was coded message that he would run for CD 15.

Also on Saturday, Lakeland Republican Sen. Kelli Stargel took her name out of the running via a tweet announcing she would continue running for re-election in Senate District 22.

Still, Combee could face other primary challengers in for the safe Republican seat, which covers parts of Hillsborough, Lake and Polk counties.

Thonotosassa Republican Sen. Tom Lee was dead set on a run for Chief Financial Officer earlier this year but has since gone radio silent. He’s up for re-election in the Senate, but given his gripes with the chamber and sitting CFO Jimmy Patronis’ high level of support in the CFO race, CD 15 could be the most appealing option.

There’s also a chance Dover Republican Rep. Ross Spano enters the race.

He’s currently at the back of the pack fundraising wise in the four-way primary for Attorney General, and a couple of Republicans have already filed to succeed him in House District 59, and he already endorsed one of them, making a run for re-election to the state House an improbable proposition.

When it comes to name recognition, his odds in CD 15 are much better than in a statewide race for a Cabinet position.

Lakeland City Commissioner Scott Franklin is also in the mix of possible candidates.

Whoever ends up running will need to decide in the next couple weeks — the qualifying period for Congressional seats opens April 30 and ends May 4.

Neil Combee considering bid for Dennis Ross’ seat, Kelli Stargel passes

There’s still a couple weeks left before voters pick Neil Combee’s replacement in the Florida House, but the Auburndale Republican may already be thinking of running for another seat – this time in Congress.

In a cryptic Facebook post, Combee seemed to indicate he’s considering a run to succeed U.S. Rep. Dennis Ross in Florida’s 15th Congressional District. Ross said earlier this week he wouldn’t run for re-election in 2018.

“Don’t ever sell your saddle. You never know what tomorrow brings,” he said in the post.

A Republican consultant close to Combee didn’t need a codebreaker to translate that message – he said it means the former lawmaker is close to declaring for the seat.

Florida Politics is told that Combee will have an announcement Tuesday. Whatever he does, Combee is said to be making sure he doesn’t run afoul of The Hatch Act, a 1939 law that seeks to keep government functions nonpartisan.

CD 15 covers Lake County, northwestern Polk County and Northeastern Hillsborough County. It’s a safe Republican seat, and Ross’ exit has already drawn interest from a handful of elected officials within the district.

Lakeland Republican Sen. Kelli Stargel was one of the first names mentioned after Ross’ announcement, but she ended the speculation with a Saturday tweet.

Stargel’s decision was probably somewhat tied to keeping Senate District 22 in Republican hands. The seat has a Republican lean, it voted plus-7 for Donald Trump, but without an incumbent Democrats could have a strong shot at a flip.

Thonotosassa Republican Sen. Tom Lee is also possibly considering running for Congress.

Lee is up for re-election in the Senate, but earlier in the year he was clear in saying his sights were on the CFO job. He’s yet to announce his bid for the Cabinet position, leading many to speculate he won’t.

An open Congressional seat could be more appealing anyway, as Lee can avoid what’s sure to be an ugly and expensive Republican Primary against sitting CFO Jimmy Patronis.

Lakeland City Commissioner Scott Franklin is also in the mix of possible candidates.

Whoever ends up running will need to make a decision in the next couple weeks –  the qualifying period for Congressional seats opens April 30 and ends May 4.

A day cashing campaign checks helps Dennis Baxley swamp foe in SD 12 race

With a Democratic challenger now picking up a little momentum in his fundraising, Republican state Sen. Dennis Baxley spent a day last month cashing scores of $1,000 checks from political action committees for his re-election fund in Senate District 12.

Baxley, of Ocala, reported that in March his campaign brought in $47,250. All of it was recorded on March 30, and all of it came in big checks from political action committees, businesses, and lobbyists, including 44 checks for the maximum $1,000 and another six for $500 apiece.

That pushed Baxley’s re-election campaign up to $152,350 collected, with about $112,250 left in the bank going into April.

Meanwhile Democratic challenger Gary McKechnie had his first significant month of fundraising, but it was a modest collection compared with Baxley’s one-day haul. McKechnie, a motorcycle-riding travel writer from Mount Dora, reported raising $13,256 in 102 checks in March. That brought his campaign total to $21,638, with about $20,000 of that in the bank on April 1.

Senate District 12, which includes part of Lake County and a big swath of north-central Florida, was just about the only Central Florida Senate district where candidates had much campaign finance activity in March.

Democrat Bob Doyel was an exception. He reported bringing in $20,882, including a $7,000 check from himself, in his bid to unseat Republican state Sen. Kelli Stargel in Senate District 22, which includes parts of Lake and Polk counties. Doyel entered April having raised $64,881, and with $49,255 in the bank.

Stargel raised just $1,033 in March, but has raised $146,733 overall, and entered April with almost $104,000 left. New in the Democratic field for that seat, former state Rep. Ricardo Rangel of Auburndale reported raising $2,075, and spending $108.

In Senate District 14 on the Space Coast, Democratic challenger Melissa Martin of Cocoa reported raising $6,369, giving her campaign a total of $24,416 in contributions, and about $21,400 left in the bank. Republican state Sen. Dorothy Hukill of Port Orange didn’t raise any money in March. But her campaign already had raised $120,650, and entered April with about $84,000 left in the bank.

Looking ahead to the 2020 elections, Republican state Rep. Jason Brodeur of Sanford didn’t raise any money for his bid to be elected in Senate District 9 in Seminole County, but he has a campaign that already had raised $237,454, and it entered April with $144,000 left in the bank. His Democratic opponent, Fred Ashby, has not really raised any money.

Also looking ahead to the 2020 elections, Democratic state Sens. Randolph Bracy of Orange County’s Senate District 11, Linda Stewart of Orange County’s Senate District 13, and Victor Torres of Orange and Osceola counties’ Senate District 15 didn’t have any campaign finance activity to speak of in March. None of them has more than $25,000 in their re-election accounts at this point, but none has an opponent yet either.

Honor roll: State legislators receive high marks from Florida Chamber

The grades are in, and from the perspective of those pushing for a more fertile business climate in the Sunshine State, the Legislature is getting better — but there’s still work to be done.

Each year the Florida Chamber grades state legislators after tabulating votes on measures backed by the pro-business group. The 2018 Legislative Report Card, released Thursday, showed significant improvement from the 2017 Session.

Forty-seven percent of legislators earned an A — that’s up from a mere 9 percent in 2017. The average GPA for both chambers came in at 78 percent, up from last year’s 73 percent.

The House performed better than the Senate; 64 representatives earned an A and the chamber’s GPA came to 79 percent, compared to eight A-earning senators and an average GPA of 74 percent for the upper chamber. House Speaker Richard Corcoran earned an A. Senate President Joe Negron earned a C.

A news release from the Chamber attributed the higher overall scores to “cutting red tape, chipping away at Florida-only taxes, funding for economic development, tourism marketing and infrastructure investments, and targeted education reforms.”

Unresolved matters, the Chamber contends, include reforming assignment of benefits and lawsuit abuses, stabilizing workers’ compensation and increasing investments in Florida’s workforce colleges.

“While there is always room for improvement and more work to be done, this legislative session’s grades showed many legislators took steps in the right direction on several policy fronts and voted to prevent harmful ideas from becoming law. We look forward to a session when every legislator earns an ‘A’ and Florida’s competitiveness outranks every other state,” said David Hart, executive vice president of the Chamber. 

The grades shouldn’t come as a surprise to lawmakers. The Chamber released its legislative priorities ahead of the 2018 Session and hand-delivered its agenda to every legislator. The group alerted lawmakers prior to each time it intended to factor a vote into its report card. In total, the Chamber scored 2,900 votes.

Along with the report card, the chamber announced its Distinguished Advocate award winners. The recognition is reserved for a handful of legislators who fought tirelessly for the passage of pro-business legislation – no matter how difficult – and furthered the Florida Chamber’s goals of securing Florida’s future through job creation and economic development,” according to the Chamber. 

Fifteen lawmakers received the distinction this year. Most were recognized for their pro-business efforts. St. Petersburg Rep. Ben Diamond, the lone Democrat on the list, was honored for championing a lawsuit-limiting amendment. Incoming chamber leaders, Republicans Rep. Jose Oliva and Sen. Bill Galvanowere recognized for their roles in championing school safety measures in the wake of the Parkland tragedy.

“We’re pleased to recognize members of the Florida Legislature with Distinguished Advocate awards who had the courage to put free enterprise principles for job creation above special interest,” said Chamber President and CEO Mark Wilson.

Other honorees include:

– Rep. Manny Diaz

– Rep. Joe Gruters

– Rep. Clay Ingram

– Rep. Mike La Rosa

– Rep. Scott Plakon

– Rep. Holly Raschein

– Rep. Paul Renner

– Rep. Jay Trumbull

– Sen. Dennis Baxley

– Sen. David Simmons

– Sen. Wilton Simpson

– Sen. Kelli Stargel

Rick Scott highlights money for military, veterans in Tampa

Gov. Rick Scott visited USAA in Tampa on Monday “to highlight $180 million in total funding in his Securing Florida’s Future Budget to support active military, veterans, and their families.”

The Governor’s Office announced the event in a press release.

He also signed HB 29, which will “increase opportunities and reduce fees for Florida military, veterans and their families.”

The bill, known as the “Don Hahnfeldt Veteran and Family Opportunity Act,” expands legislation signed into law by Scott in 2014 (more here) by reducing professional licensing fees and requirements for certain military members, veterans, and their spouses.

This bill also designates March 25 of every year as “Medal of Honor Day” to honor the individuals recognized with the highest award for valor in action against an enemy force in the Armed Services of the United States.

The “Don Hahnfeldt Veteran and Family Opportunity Act” was named after the late Rep. Don Hahnfeldt, a veteran and a member of the Florida House of Representatives who passed away last year.

Florida Democrats look to expand number of state Senate seats in play

It’s been nearly 25 years since a Democrat presided over the Florida Senate, but if the plans of party leaders and operatives come together, the president’s gavel could be theirs as soon as November.

The Florida Democratic Party and the Florida Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee, the recently-established campaign arm of the Senate Democrats, are aggressively working to reshape the map of seats in play this election cycle.

According to multiple sources, including several Democratic state senators, as well as senior staff at the FDP and the FDLCC, the party is:

— Hoping to persuade former state Rep. Amanda Murphy to run for the open seat in Senate District 16, once held by Clearwater Republican Jack Latvala, who resigned in the wake of a sexual harassment scandal. Currently, former state Rep. Ed Hooper is running for the Pinellas-based district against a long-shot Democratic opponent.

— Actively encouraging outgoing state Rep. Janet Cruz to enter the race for SD 18, where she would go up against Republican incumbent Dana Young.

— Expecting trial lawyer Carrie Pilon to challenge incumbent Sen. Jeff Brandes in SD 24, a seat that’s historically flipped back and forth between the parties.

— Investing a higher level of resources than first expected in the campaigns of Kayser Enneking and Bob Doyel, two first-time candidates challenging Republican incumbents Keith Perry and Kelli Stargel, respectively.

— Counting on Alex Penelas, the former mayor of Miami-Dade County, to step up and run for SD 36, where Republican Rene Garcia is term-limited. State Rep. Manny Diaz has already declared for the seat and, in fact, just raised more than $50,000 at his first fundraiser.

Currently, the Florida Senate has 23 Republicans and 15 Democrats, although Lori Berman‘s special election victory is a foregone conclusion, so it’s really 23-16.

That means Republicans hold a seven-seat advantage heading into the 2018 cycle. If the Democrats protect all of their incumbents (currently none are engaged in particularly competitive re-elections) and win five of the seven targets listed above — an enormous, almost herculean task — Sen. Audrey Gibson of Jacksonville will serve as president of the Senate in 2018-20.

Of course, it’s easy to draw targets on a map. Having candidates actually file for the seats and win their races are other matters altogether.

There’s also the issue of money.

Florida Democrats have been traditionally hamstrung by a decided lack of financial resources, while their Republican counterparts in the Senate are flush with campaign cash, both in the Florida Republican Senatorial Campaign Committee’s fund and in the individual accounts of several Senators.

Republicans have other advantages at their disposal. First of all, most are incumbents and can use the power of their offices to reach voters. And despite what some in the traditional media might have you believe, Florida’s Republican lawmakers are actually held in good standing by most voters, with 52 percent of Floridians giving them the thumbs-upaccording to a recent poll from the University of North Florida.

There’s also the reality that most of the Republicans being targeted by the Democrats are off to big head-starts over their prospective Democratic challengers.

“We have excellent candidates who have strong support from their communities and have the resources and on-the-ground teams needed to win,” said Senate President-designate Bill Galvano, who leads his party’s campaign efforts. “The Democrats can focus on recruiting candidates. We are focusing on preparing our already-set slate of candidates for victory.”

Young has banked away nearly a million dollars for her re-election. Brandes has a large, near-permanent campaign staff that really hasn’t stopped working since he was first elected in 2010. Hooper has decades of experience representing Pinellas voters, whereas Murphy would be a new face to many SD 16 constituents. There isn’t a weekend when Diaz isn’t walking door-to-door in this district (Don’t believe me? Just check his Twitter account).

Despite these and other disadvantages, the Democrats are taking the first steps of putting the pieces on the chessboard.

Murphy confirms that interest in her challenging Hooper is spiking. She said her phone was “blowing up” Tuesday as word of her prospective candidacy spread. While she acknowledges that “in today’s climate it would be crazy not to think about running for office,” she also is concerned about what a return to public life might do to her professional career: “I have clients, a team and regulations that demand my time.”

Florida Politics reported Tuesday night that Cruz, currently running for the Hillsborough County Commission, has spoken with Senate Democratic leadership and party donors about challenging Young. Several sources say she has contacted Young’s current Democratic challenger Bob Buesing to discuss clearing the field for her.

Florida Politics recently acquired the internal working documents of the nascent campaign of Pilon, who could launch her campaign as soon as next week.

Penelas, last in office 14 years ago, confirmed Wednesday morning that he is considering a run and that he will likely make a decision next week. A lot depends on what his family — Penelas has a young daughter — thinks of the decision, he says.

With a potential abundance of riches, at least in terms of candidates, the question remains whether the Democrats will have the money to play in as many as seven or eight competitive seats.

One potential source of the kind of money needed to compete in all of these seats is national money, like that from former Attorney General Eric Holder‘s National Democratic Redistricting Committee. It’s attracted to the possibility of flipping chambers, not just winning seats.

“If there was ever a cycle when Democrats could make huge gains in a chamber, including possible flipping one, it’s this year, and it’s in the Florida Senate,” said Christian Ulvert, a prominent Democratic political consultant.

Bob Doyel snags 20 endorsements in bid to unseat Kelli Stargel

Democrat Bob Doyel on Monday announced a long list of endorsements for his campaign against incumbent Republican Sen. Kelli Stargel in Senate District 22.

Doyel, a retired circuit court judge, listed 13 endorsements from current and former elected officials in the bulk announcement.

The seven current elected officials: Kissimmee Democratic Rep. John Cortes, Haines City Commissioner Anne Huffman, Lake Hamilton Vice Mayor Mike Kehoe, Dundee Mayor Sam Pennant, newly elected Winter Haven City Commissioner JP Powell, Polk County School Board member Billy Townsend and Haines City Vice Mayor Morris West.

Also on the list were former Winter Haven Sen. Rick Dantzler, former Winter Haven City Commissioner Tom Freijo, former Lakeland City Commissioner Jim Malless, recently retired Public Defender Marion Moorman, former Polk County Commissioner Jean Reed and former theatre director Norm Small.

“Bob Doyel advocates for home rule and public schools,” Freijo said in the press release. “I’ve known him for many years and I’m confident he’ll get things done for the people in our district.”

Also included in the announcement were community leaders Doris Moore Bailey, Ruth Ann Eaddy, Martin Negron, Larry Hardaway, John Perez, Larry Rankin, and Pastor Clifton E. Dollison.

“Receiving so much help from the community – from friends, teachers, former colleagues, and from everyday, concerned citizens – is a deeply moving and humbling experience. I’m running to be the best public servant I can be to the people of Polk and Lake counties, not to the special interests being served in Tallahassee,” Doyel said.

Doyel is running against former state Rep. Ricardo Rangel in the Democratic Primary for the seat. Also challenging Stargel is no-party candidate Ryan Morales.

Through February, Doyel had raised about $51,000 for his campaign and had $39,192 in the bank. His total includes $7,500 in loans.

Rangel, who filed March 13, and Morales, who filed March 16, have yet to filed their first campaign finance reports.

Stargel, who is running for her final term, had brought in $145,700 for her campaign account as of Feb. 28 and had $112,817 on hand. She also has a political committee, Limited Govt for a Stronger Florida Political Committee, with about $106,500 on hand.

SD 22 has a Republican lean despite Democrats having a 10,000-voter edge in registrations.

SD 22 would have voted plus-2 for Mitt Romney in 2012 and plus-11 for Gov. Rick Scott in the 2010 gubernatorial race. In the 2016 race Stargel won re-election over Democrat Debra Wright by 7 points while President Donald Trump carried the district by nearly the same margin.

Robert Doyel’s self-donation pushes February contributions to $17K in SD 22 race

Former Circuit Court Judge Robert Doyel upped his commitment and his state Senate campaign fund in February, in his Democratic bid to unseat Republican state Sen. Kelli Stargel in Senate District 22.

Doyel, of Winter Haven, a retired judge from Florida’s 10th Judicial Circuit, reported donating $5,000 to his campaign, helping it bring in $17,677 in cash and another $700 in in-kind services in February. It was the second consecutive month he has made a major donation to his campaign, and the first month he’s been able to clear more than $10,000 in outside contributions.

Doyel contributed $10,000 in January. That’s in addition to $7,500 he lent to his campaign last summer at the start.

At least financially, the self-donations have fueled and sparked his campaign into something approaching a competitive position against Stargel, who was not allowed to do any fundraising in February because the Florida Senate was in Session.

In addition to his donation, Doyel brought in more than 60 other contributions in February.

With the $31,000 raised over the past two months, Doyel’s campaign completed February with about $39,000 left in cash. Stargel, of Lakeland, spent a little campaign money in February and entered March with about $112,000 cash left.

SD 22 covers much of northern Polk County and part of southern Lake County.

Kelli Stargel gets pushback over ‘thoughts and prayers’ remark

Sen. Kelli Stargel, a Lakeland Republican, said she’s been inundated with angry and hateful messages after she said “thoughts and prayers” were the best way to stop the evil behind mass shootings like the massacre at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High.

“The pushback has been incredible. As my daughter called it, it was the quote heard ‘round the world,” Stargel told The News Service of Florida.

Stargel said her son, who lives in Chile, told her it showed up in his news feeds.

The senator called the reaction “unfortunate.” Lawmakers have passed a $400 million “comprehensive piece of legislation” that addresses firearms, mental health, school resource officers and school hardening, she said.

“So we’re not just thinking and praying. But I think the pushback is indicative of the hate and anger that’s going on in our culture,” Stargel said.

Stargel remains unapologetic for her comments, delivered during debate on the school-safety measure this week.

“I don’t know when it became inappropriate to pray for our country, pray for people, have compassion, common decency, kindness,” she said.

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