With St. Petersburg City Council member Ed Montanari now in the race for House District 60, challenging incumbent Democrat Lindsay Cross after weeks of speculation that he would throw his name in the hat, Cross now likely faces a more difficult race than the one she won two years ago.
The St. Pete Republican is likely an ideal candidate in the battleground district where Democrats carry a slight voter registration advantage with just under 41,000 voters compared to just over 36,000 Republican voters, according to the most recent voter registration data from the Pinellas County Supervisor of Elections.
Montanari is known for his calm demeanor, quiet disposition, thoughtful consideration of policy and moderate approach to governance.
The last time Montanari won an election was in November 2019, which earned him a second term representing District 3 on the St. Pete City Council. At the time of his election, and as it remains today, the district was the only in the city with a voter registration advantage favoring Republicans, but it was narrow. At the time, Republicans had about 1,500 more registered voters than Democrats.
While the voter registration advantage was slim, Montanari’s victory was not. He won by nearly 8 percentage points.
While the comparisons to Montanari’s most recent electoral victory may not be exact, there are important takeaways to glean for his next battle, and Cross’ task ahead if she’s to retain her seat in the House.
Montanari’s re-election victory in 2019 came during the Donald Trump presidency, at a time when Democrats were finding down ballot success by tying Republicans to the nation’s controversial fire-starter of a Commander-in-Chief.
Acosta’s campaign tried that tactic, and it failed miserably. They sent mailers attempting to tie Montanari to Trump, with mailers and door hangers depicting Montanari with a photoshopped red “Make America Great Again” hat atop his head.
The attempt not only didn’t work, it backfired. Those who worked with Montanari knew he was nothing like the Trump brand of Republican — all but one of his colleagues on the Council endorsed his re-election campaign and they were all Democrats.
But a state House race could be different, and likely will be. They tend to be more contentious, are more high-profile, and they are definitely more partisan. While St. Pete City Council is a non-partisan elected office, the state House is not.
Still, it doesn’t look even now as though Montanari is going to take a hard right turn in the race. To win, he’ll need to rely on historically strong Republican voter turnout, while also courting some crossover appeal from moderate Democrats. So far, he seems to have avoided anything resembling Trumpian politics, sticking with kitchen table issues that appeal to all voters regardless of party affiliation.
Montanari’s campaign rollout included a statement pointing to things that are hurting Floridians — “housing, crime, inflation and out-of-control insurance rates.” His only nod to a GOP base came in the form of touting his experience as an Air Force F-16 pilot, a bullet point on his résumé that will impress conservatives and some Democrats, while not likely turning off progressives.
His message to voters was clear, that he would “fight to make our homes and apartments more affordable” and “for our first responders who are on the front lines to protect and serve our families,” a statement that will certainly resonate with GOP voters, but not that is controversial.
But Cross won’t be an easy incumbent to defeat. She won her seat in the House by 8 percentage points over GOP candidate Audrey Henson in a year where Republicans were overwhelmingly successful in Florida, leading to supermajorities in both legislative chambers. And like Montanari, Henson was a moderate Republican.
Cross has served as a likable lawmaker who, even in disagreements, has maintained good relationships with Republican colleagues.
She also has a strong résumé to run on, including work as an environmental scientist that plays well in a state particularly susceptible to the effects of climate change and sea level rise.
And while Montanari will undoubtedly catch up through a deep well of GOP donors, Cross also has a healthy head start on fundraising, with nearly $108,000 banked since mid-December. Of that, Cross maintains about $94,000. She has another approximately $27,000 on-hand in an affiliated political committee, Moving Pinellas Forward.
Montanari officially entered the race on Oct. 13 and has not yet posted any fundraising data. He’s proven himself an effective fundraiser, with more than $150,000 banked in his 2019 City Council campaign, a large sum for a local race.
The Republican Party of Florida offered significant support to Henson two years ago in hopes of flipping the seat red — it was formerly held by Democrat Ben Diamond — and is likely to continue that support with Montanari.
But Democrats are hungry to regain some ground lost in the 2022 Midterms that amounted to a red tsunami despite overperformances by Democrats in other states, and they will likely work hard to retain Cross’ seat while also looking for some flips elsewhere in the state.