Florida Congressional Primaries Could Provide November Insight

In this March 17, 2020, file photo voters walk into a polling station for the Florida presidential primary in Bonita Springs, Fla. (AP Photo/Elise Amendola)

(CN) — Florida’s voters head to the polls on Tuesday for a series of congressional primaries, and despite the Sunshine State’s status as a battleground state, the results could signal more questions than answers.

All of Florida’s 27 U.S. House seats are up for election, with the majority already decided before the primary. There are a handful of competitive congressional races centered in South and Central Florida that could indicate voter enthusiasm — depending on a myriad of factors.

“The primary elections often times do not give you great clues as to what is going to happen in November,” said Darryl Paulson, emeritus professor of government at University of South Florida-St. Petersburg. “Because the primary turnout is so substantially different than the presidential turnout just two months later.”

New voter registrations, and also how Floridians decide to vote in this primary — mail, early voting or on Aug. 18 — could also be an indicator into whether Democrats or Republicans have an edge going into November.

So far, many of the state’s competitive congressional districts are showing an above-average amount of mail-in ballots submitted compared to the 2018 primary, according to the state’s division of elections.

Nearly two million Floridians have already voted by mail with a majority of Democrats — 959,654 to 673,775 Republicans.

The Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act gave states more than $400 million to prepare for coronavirus during the 2020 elections. Florida received $20.2 million — roughly $50,000 for each of the state’s 67 counties.

More than 371,000 Floridians have voted early. Republicans outnumber Democrats by 69,000 in voting early.

“Along with turnout, there are a couple related factors,” said Paulson. “One is voter enthusiasm. Republicans tend to come out and vote on a regular basis and Democrats promise to vote and don’t. So there’s an enthusiasm gap.”

“But this time seems different,” he added.

Most of Florida’s 27 seats are not competitive, but a few have garnered that voter interest. 

In Florida’s 15th Congressional District, incumbent Republican Ross Spano faces Scott Franklin, a Lakeland city commissioner. The district encompasses Central Florida rural communities and the northern suburbs of Tampa.

Spano made headlines after winning his seat in 2018 due to investigations into possible campaign finance violations by the Department of Justice and The Florida Bar. He has denied any wrongdoing. 

Spano, an attorney, is part of the House Transportation Committee and Small Business Committee. He’s supported typical conservative causes such as less regulation of businesses, lower taxes and a market-based healthcare system.

His opponent Franklin served in the Navy and runs a small business. In campaign materials, he’s pushed his support for President Donald Trump and his policies.

Although Spano leads in fundraising with more $1 million, Franklin gained attention last month by raising a total of $587,000.

In a poll released Thursday by St. Pete Polls, Franklin and Spano were virtually tied with 17% undecided.

But among those who voted already, Franklin led the survey. He’s supported by some of the state’s more popular Republicans, including Polk County Sheriff Grady Judd and U.S. Rep. Matt Gaetz.

In the Democratic primary, three candidates hope to flip this Republican leaning district in November.

Alan Cohn, an investigative journalist, ran for the seat in 2014 and lost by more than 45,000 votes. His campaign’s website lists his priorities as access to healthcare and increasing the minimum wage. He’s gained endorsements from former Florida senators and representatives.

State Rep. Adam Hattersley, a Navy veteran, has a slight lead in fundraising over Cohn. He’s served in the Florida House of Representatives for the last two years. Hattersley’s priorities include environmental issues, access to healthcare and help for veterans. Hattersley is endorsed by the Sierra Club and several local politicians.

Jesse Philippe, a former Marine, seeks investments in schools and infrastructure. Philippe trails the other two candidates with $18,600 in campaign contributions.

Two congressional primaries in South Florida are also grabbing attention.

In the 26th District, two Republicans are running to face incumbent Democrat Debbie Mucarsel-Powell in November.

Before voters elected Muscarsel-Powell in 2018 by a thin margin, the seat was held by a Republican for six years. Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Gimenez and Omar Blanco, a firefighter, hope to return the seat to the GOP.

Gimenez is considered a favorite in the race and one of the only Republicans in Florida endorsed by Trump. He’s also received the support of a prominent GOP donor, casino owner Sheldon Adelson.

Gimenez leads fundraising efforts with $1.15 million raised and spent nearly $271,000, much less than his Republican counterpart.

In a poll released last month by Meeting Street Insights, Gimenez led Muscarsel-Powell by five percentage points. He has a massive lead among Hispanic voters. More than half of those surveyed in the poll approved of the Miami-Dade mayor’s handling of the coronavirus, which is an issue consistently brought up by his Democratic rival, who sits on the House Coronavirus Task Force.

The district covers portions of Miami-Dade County and the Florida Keys.

Although South Florida leans Democratic, the large Cuban population typically votes Republican.

In the state’s 27th District, incumbent Democrat Donna Shalala will face one of three Republicans in November. Shalaha narrowly flipped the district when she was elected in 2018.

A Miami native, Juan Fiol is a real estate agent with Cuban roots. Raymond Molina, who also works in real estate, has deep ties to the Cuban community as a Bay of Pigs veteran. Both candidates regularly mention their “fight against the threat of socialism.”

But the frontrunner is Maria Elvira Salazar, a journalist for 35 years. She faced Shalala in 2018 and received more than 45% of the vote. She currently leads in fundraising with more than $1.8 million. She’s spent more than $667,000 in the primary — several times more than her two Republican opponents.

The district covers half of Miami and a large part of Miami-Dade County.

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