What looks like an easy win for Tampa state Rep. Sean Shaw in the Democratic primary for attorney general, setting set up a serious general election battle, is getting tangled in litigation that doesn't appear likely to help any Democrat win the key Cabinet post.

Shaw's opponent in the primary, consumer foreclosure lawyer Ryan Torrens of Tampa, announced Tuesday he's suing Shaw for libel, in response to a lawsuit Shaw filed three weeks ago seeking to have Torrens thrown off the ballot.

Shaw contends that at the time Torrens qualified for the race, he didn't have enough campaign money to pay the $7,738 qualifying fee. Torrens paid the fee, Shaw alleges, only with a contribution from his wife that exceeded contribution limits, and therefore isn't legally qualified.

Torrens argues that the contribution was legal, and that Shaw has "falsely and frivolously challenged my integrity, as a professional and as someone aspiring to public office," and the "meritless allegations of fraud could irreparably harm his practice and good name."

Ryan Torrens
Ryan Torrens

Torrens paid the qualifying fee June 21, after receiving a contribution June 18 of $4,000 shown on his campaign finance reports as having come from his wife, Francesca Yabraian, who had already given several prior, smaller contributions.

The contribution limit for anyone other than the candidate is $3,000.

In a news release, Torrens contended the contribution was legal because it came from a joint account in both their names, and that Shaw's lawsuit was "frivolous." But the campaign also reported refunding $3,332 to Yabraian.

Shaw's lawsuit, filed in Leon County Circuit Court, has thus far included a preliminary hearing and depositions. Torrens filed his response and counterclaim Tuesday.

Shaw remains the clear frontrunner in the Tampa-centric primary race by available measures.

He's been endorsed by half a dozen Florida Democratic congress members including Tampa Rep. Kathy Castor; majorities of the Democratic delegations to both the state House and Senate, including several Tampa Bay area legislators; the state's most prominent Democratic-oriented organized labor groups; individuals including former governor and senator Bob Graham, former Attorney General Bob Butterworth and several state attorneys including Hillsborough's Andrew Warren; and several Democratic Party caucuses and Indivisible-style activist groups.

His campaign has released polling they say showed him leading the two Republican candidates, Ashley Moody and Frank White, and has more than $600,000 in the bank, plus state party aid.

Torrens, meanwhile, is close to broke. He's raised $142,425 including $8,450 in loans, and spent $135,289. His website lists only a smattering of endorsements.

Asked why Shaw would sue to have a lesser-known opponent thrown off the ballot in a race he's leading, campaign spokesman Michael Hopkins said, "Sean has promised he's going to hold everyone accountable" as attorney general. "When the primary opponent has contributions that are potentially disqualifying, he has to hold them accountable."

Campaign insiders have suggested that Shaw also would like to avoid the expense and time involved in contesting a primary, even if he wins it, saving resources for the general election.

Hopkins said Democrats "are unified and excited to lead this state in a new direction. … Regardless of who Republicans nominate, we are confident our message will continue to resonate with voters."

He said the campaign would not comment on Torrens's countersuit, or on Torrens's explanation of the allegedly illegal contribution.