Neither are electoral newcomers, but U.S. Reps. Neal Dunn and Al Lawson will undergo their first true congressional re-election tests when they square off in November.
News broke last week that Lawson would seek re-election via Florida’s 2nd Congressional District, and he submitted that paperwork on Monday. The Democrat from Tallahassee told POLITICO of his decision Thursday, a week to the day after the Florida Supreme Court declined to hear a challenge to the state’s new congressional map — drawn by Gov. Ron DeSantis’ Office and eliminating Lawson’s existing district — before the Midterms.
Lawson and Dunn, a Panama City Republican, are the only candidates who have so far qualified to run, meaning the two are likely to face off in November. Both have served in Congress since 2017, but when they go head-to-head, it will be the first time either of them face a significant General Election challenger.
The Court’s decision this month created an uphill battle for Lawson. Lawson’s current 5th Congressional District is the only one of five North Florida districts that leans Democratic. But all five districts lean Republican under the new map.
However, the new North Florida districts also mark a significant change for Dunn. The DeSantis-drawn map turns CD 2 from a district that went for former President Donald Trump by 35 points in 2020 to one that would have gone for him by only 11 points.
Lawson, 73, served in the Florida House from 1982 to 2002 and the Florida Senate from 2002 to 2010. After unsuccessful congressional bids in 2010 and 2012, Lawson was elected to the U.S. House in 2016 under the outgoing version of CD 5. That version was drawn by the Florida courts and stretches from Tallahassee to Jacksonville to create a minority access seat.
After the Florida Supreme Court earlier this month declined to hear arguments over the new map — drawn, in rare fashion, by the Governor’s staff — Lawson decided to run in CD 2. The 4th Congressional District, in Clay and Nassau counties and western Jacksonville, is more politically advantageous to Democrats, leaning Trump’s way by less than 6 points in 2020. However, Lawson grew up in Gadsden County and has represented the Tallahassee area his entire political career.
“I am born and raised in this community, and I have served the people of North Florida in one way or another since 1982. This is my home, and we deserve to have a strong voice in Congress. I will continue to be that voice,” Lawson said in a statement to Florida Politics.
Dunn, 69, is a surgeon and founding chairman of Summit Bank, a community bank in Panama City. After serving 11 years active duty in the U.S. Army, Dunn settled in the Panhandle, where he helped found the Panama City Urological Center and the Panama City Surgery Center.
“I’ve known Rep. Al Lawson for many years. I respect him and his lengthy service to the community,” Dunn said in a statement to Florida Politics.
“With that said, we have dramatically different policy views on how to solve America’s problems. Thanks to his party’s leadership and policies, inflation is at a 40-year high, gas and energy prices are skyrocketing, and businesses are struggling to overcome supply chain and workforce woes. I look forward to the coming months where we will have an opportunity to talk about those policies, and I am confident the voters in this district are far more aligned with my views than Al Lawson’s.”
Lawson told POLITICO he will hammer Dunn’s opposition to COVID-19 relief and infrastructure bills that poured money into the region. The Lawson campaign also plans to highlight Lawson’s decades of experience.
Lawson never faced a serious General Election opponent in any of his three wins beginning in 2016, when the Tallahassee-Jacksonville district kicked in. He previously ran unsuccessfully for the House in 2010, losing in the Democratic Primary, and 2012, losing in the General Election to then-incumbent U.S. Rep. Steve Southerland by 6 points.
Dunn defeated Democratic opponents in 2016 and 2018 by securing more than two-thirds of the vote but picked up no challenger in 2020, drawing criticism that he is untested in a significant General Election. His closest election came during the 2016 Primary, when he won with 41% of the vote, edging out Mary Thomas by less than 2 points.
Additionally, the new CD 2 cartography is similar to that Lawson narrowly lost in 2012 and that former Democratic Rep. Gwen Graham won by a little more than 1 point in 2014. Graham, the daughter of former Gov. and U.S. Sen. Bob Graham, flipped the district by defeating Southerland despite 2014 being a year when Republicans made House gains nationally.
The Florida Legislature passed the DeSantis-drawn map when negotiations on cartography failed during the Regular Session, forcing a Special Session. Analysts in the Florida Senate and House had maintained minority access seats were protected by the state constitution, per a 2015 Florida Supreme Court ruling that enacted the map in place the last three election cycles.
The 2015 ruling introduced the outgoing configuration of CD 5 that DeSantis wanted off the map. The Republican Governor argued that, by preserving a minority access district in North Florida, lawmakers produced a map drawn with race as a predominant motivator in violation of the equal protection clause of the U.S. Constitution.
A lawsuit alleging the new map violates the Fair Districts amendment to Florida’s Constitution by diminishing the ability of Black constituents to elect a Representative of their choice remains ongoing. However, any impact will likely have to wait for a full trial to unfold, something that could take years.
The existing CD 5 map snakes through parts of Tallahassee and cuts to the western edge of Gadsden County before following the Florida-Georgia border and spilling into Jacksonville. Meanwhile, the existing CD 2 spans from Bay County to Levy and Marion counties and includes the parts of Tallahassee that CD 5 avoids.
Everything between DeFuniak Springs and Madison falls into the new CD 2, which would have voted for DeSantis over Tallahassee Mayor Andrew Gillum by nearly 8 points in 2018 and for Trump over President Joe Biden by 11 points in 2020.