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Tom Lee stays on sidelines in congressional race

Saying “this is simply not the right time for me,” state Sen. Tom Lee announced Thursday he will not run for a Central Florida congressional seat that became open when U.S. Rep. Dennis Ross decided against seeking re-election.

It was not immediately clear whether Lee, a Thonotosassa Republican and former Senate president, will seek re-election in November to his Senate seat.

Lee, who mulled running for a variety of offices, issued a statement saying he will not enter the contest in Congressional District 15, which covers parts of Polk, Hillsborough and Lake counties.

“The outreach and encouragement from across the district has been truly humbling,” Lee said. “Unfortunately, this is simply not the right time for me to go to Washington.”

With qualifying for federal offices ending at noon Friday, four Republicans — former state Rep. Neil Combee of Auburndale, Sean Harper of Lakeland, Curt Rogers of Dover and Ed Shoemaker of Lakeland — and a trio of Democrats — Kristen Carlson of Lakeland, Andrew Learned of Valrico and Ray Pena of Lakeland — had filed paperwork as of late Thursday afternoon to run for Ross’ seat.

State Rep. Ross Spano, a Dover Republican, has announced he will run for the seat after initially running for state attorney general. Spano was not listed on the state Division of Elections website as having qualified Thursday afternoon.

Lee, who did not immediately return a call for comment, can run for re-election in state Senate District 20, which includes parts of Hillsborough, Polk and Pasco counties. Qualifying for legislative races is from June 18 to June 22.

Lee, a vice president of Sabal Homes of Florida who served in the Senate from 1996 to 2006 and returned in 2012, has said he is attempting to balance his family and political aspirations.

On April 19, Lee ended the possibility of running for state chief financial officer, pointing to the time and travel needed to mount a statewide campaign. At the time, he also noted, “I really would love to continue to be serving (in the Senate), but I have to be pragmatic about it and put my kids first.”

Heading into the final half-day of federal qualifying, all 23 congressional incumbents seeking re-election had qualified for the November ballot, with Congressman Daniel Webster, a Republican who once served as state House speaker, getting his paperwork in on Thursday.

At least 21 of the state’s 27 seats will feature Republican-Democrat contests in November.

As of late Thursday afternoon, all but Democratic congresswomen Kathy Castor and Lois Frankel faced opponents who had qualified for the ballot. Democratic incumbent Alcee Hastings only had a write-in challenger.

Four Republican-held U.S. House seats are being vacated this year, with Ross, Tom Rooney and Ileana Ros-Lehtinen retiring and Ron DeSantis running for governor.

Democrat Donna Shalala, a former University of Miami president who served as secretary of Health and Human Services under President Bill Clinton, has joined a crowded field in South Florida to replace Ros-Lehtinen.

Meanwhile, as expected, a Democratic primary has emerged in the race for a Treasure Coast seat held by freshman Republican Congressman Brian Mast. Pam Keith, an attorney who ran unsuccessfully for the U.S. Senate in 2016, and Lauren Baer, a foreign policy official in the Obama administration whose family owns Baer’s Furniture, qualified to run for the seat this week.

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