Pat Kemp to seek Democratic nomination in CD 15, hopes to challenge Laurel Lee

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Kemp sees an opening in the red district after former President Donald Trump came out against Lee.

Hillsborough County Commissioner Pat Kemp has filed to run for Republican U.S. Rep. Laurel Lee’s seat in Florida’s 15th Congressional District.

One other Democrat, Kris Fitzgerald, has also filed. Alexander Peterson, an independent candidate, is also in the race.

The Cook Political Report does not list CD 15 in its competitive districts, but Kemp said she believes it is winnable by the right Democrat. The electorate is about 34.6% Republican, compared to about 33.3% Democratic, according to the most recent L2 voter data. Another nearly 30% of voters in the district are nonpartisan, meaning Kemp’s assessment may be accurate.

Historically, though, Democrats have not been successful in the district, which includes Lakeland and parts of east Hillsborough County and Polk County.

Kemp, a Democrat, filed for the race on Friday, according to the Federal Election Commission. Kemp told the Tampa Bay Times ahead of her announcement Saturday that she was recruited to run for the seat by both national and state-based Democratic groups.

According to campaign finance data filed with the Federal Election Commission, Lee has already raised nearly $582,000 for the race, with about $438,000 still on hand. Her husband, former state Sen. Tom Lee, also has remaining campaign funds that could help his wife’s re-election.

Peterson has not yet filed any campaign finance reports; Fitzgerald has raised just over $17,000.

Kemp told the Times she has already spoken with prospective donors and believes she has “the opportunity to compete financially.”

The opportunity may be ripe for Democrats to flip a district that has long been elusive. Former President Donald Trump, now the GOP’s presumptive nominee in the 2024 Presidential Election, recently called on someone to run against Lee in the GOP Primary.

He made a move after she had supported Gov. Ron DeSantis in the GOP Presidential Primary. While she has since backed Trump, the former President isn’t one to forget a slight.

 “For once, I agree with Donald Trump,” Kemp said in a campaign announcement Wednesday. “I agree that we deserve someone better than DeSantis’s former Secretary of State representing us in Congress. But I do NOT believe that she should be replaced with one of his MAGA extremists.”

If Lee draws a Primary challenger, she will have to spend campaign cash just to get to the General Election. This could also force her further to the right, which could give Democrats an opening among independent and moderate voters.

Since Kemp entered the race, the Florida Supreme Court reached three decisions that could, collectively, help Democrats like Kemp in November. The court approved constitutional amendments for the ballot that would protect access to abortion care and legalize cannabis for recreational use if approved by 60% or more of voters, topics that could boost Democratic turnout. The third ruling, which is a loss for Democrats in the short-term, upheld the state’s 15-week abortion ban and triggered a more restrictive 6-week ban, which essentially bans all abortions in Florida as most women don’t even know they’re pregnant by that point.

The decisions prompted the Biden campaign to host a call with reporters this week officially claiming Florida was back in play.

“Make no mistake: Florida is not an easy state to win, but it is a winnable one for President (Joe) Biden, especially given (Donald) Trump’s weak, cash-strapped campaign, and serious vulnerabilities within his coalition,” Rodríguez said adding that “abortion rights will be front and center in Florida this election cycle.”

“I am stepping forward to restore and protect a woman’s right to choose what she wants to do with her own body,” she said. “I refuse to sit back and watch Republicans try and take control of our bodies,” Kemp said.

Kemp is term-limited in her current seat on the Hillsborough County Commission. She began her political career as an aide to U.S. Rep. Kathy Castor, who served on the Commission. Kemp later chaired the Hillsborough County Democratic Party.

Kemp was first elected to County Commission in 2016, winning a crowded Democratic Primary and defeating Republican Tim Schock in the General Election. She had run for Commission two years earlier but lost to then-incumbent Commissioner Al Higginbotham.

However, one of Kemp’s most impressive feats might have come in 2020, the last time she was on a ballot. Then, she ran and won against longtime Republican Commissioner Sandy Murman. Both were technically incumbents (Commissioners often seat swap to avoid term limits, moves that can usually pit colleagues against one another).

Kemp hasn’t said what her focus will be in a congressional race. Still, she has been a vocal proponent of transit in the past, strongly backing various efforts to impose a sales tax for regional transportation and transit improvements.

Kemp has experience working in both a majority and minority. When she joined the Commission in 2016, Republicans had the majority. That changed in 2018 when Democrats flipped control and then expanded their majority in 2020.

But in 2022, amid what turned out to be a red wave in Florida despite Democratic overperformances elsewhere in the country, Republicans reclaimed their majority.

Kemp, partly based on her ability to govern from the minority, ranked in Florida Politics’ list of Most Powerful Politicians in the Tampa Bay area last year. At the time, political insiders described her as resilient and focused and having a “handle on unwieldy policy issues.”

Janelle Irwin Taylor

Janelle Irwin Taylor has been a professional journalist covering local news and politics in Tampa Bay since 2003. Most recently, Janelle reported for the Tampa Bay Business Journal. She formerly served as senior reporter for WMNF News. Janelle has a lust for politics and policy. When she’s not bringing you the day’s news, you might find Janelle enjoying nature with her husband, children and two dogs. You can reach Janelle at [email protected].


  • Sally B

    April 6, 2024 at 1:26 am

    She has been one of the worst Hillsborough County Commissioners. Now she wants to be elected to Congress to represent, in pertinent part, the people of New Tampa, the very same constituency whose interests she frequently voted against as a county commissioner. Her very candidacy is an affront to New Tampa and its residents.


    • Rick Whitaker

      April 6, 2024 at 11:17 am

      sally b, i read several of your posts, and most were of a negative or critical type. then you admonished me for the same thing, that leaves a discrepancy in your credibility, doesn’t it? the maga cult is so full of it.


      • Sally B

        April 6, 2024 at 6:06 pm

        There you go again, assuming erroneously: I have never voted for Trump. Why? Because he’s a demagogue, having been a lifelong Democrat until he decided to seek the Presidency. If you were truly introspective, you might find you share the same or substantially similar traits. Disturbing, is it not?


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