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National Democratic Committee targets Republican Gus Bilirakis’ seat as winnable

Committee says Bilirakis' record and legitimacy of Democratic challenger Chris Hunter puts district in play

As a longtime Republican stronghold, Florida's 12th congressional district has been a lost cause for progressive candidates.

President Donald Trump won the district by nearly 19 percentage points in 2016. And one political family has held the seat for 36 years: Rep. Gus Bilirakis, R-Palm Harbor, was first elected in 2007, succeeding his father, Michael Bilirakis, who served for 23 years.

National Democratic leadership thinks 2018 could be the beginning of a different story.

The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee has added District 12 to its Majority Makers list, a collection of 56 Republican seats across the nation identified with the potential to flip blue.

THE BUZZ: Rep. Gus Bilirakis sends out press release inflating amount of local fundraising support

DCCC spokeswoman Amanda Sherman said Bilirakis' 2017 votes to repeal and replace major parts of the Affordable Care Act and to pass Trump's controversial tax bill make District 12 a likely target. Sherman said the district also is in play because of the legitimacy of Democratic challenger Chris Hunter.

"There is a path for a Democrat there, and we think Chris Hunter can build on that with his profile," Sherman said of the district, which covers all of Pasco and northern parts of Pinellas and Hillsborough counties.

The 56 Majority Makers distinctions are tied to districts, while the DCCC has 55 "red to blue" designations tied to candidates. Sherman said a district is typically identified before a candidate is given an official red to blue designation.

Hunter, 45, quit his job as a senior prosecutor in the fraud section of the Department of Justice in Tampa to challenge Bilirakis. A former FBI agent who worked in counterintelligence, Hunter said bipartisan concern over Trump's presidency and inaction by Congress to hold him accountable makes flipping the district more realistic than ever before.

"I think there is widespread concern that our country is in crisis, and when I say widespread, I think that's bipartisan," Hunter said. "Our country has been torn apart intentionally by a bunch of partisans who have cast their lot with someone who is utterly compromised."

JOHN ROMANO: Be afraid of the president, Gus Bilirakis. Be very afraid

Hunter will face Tarpon Springs tax consultant Stephen Perenich and Clearwater criminal defense attorney Robert Tager in the Aug. 28 Democratic primary. Sherman said while the DCCC believes "all of the Democrats in the race can hold Bilirakis accountable for his votes against the interest of Floridians," the committee is "especially encouraged by the strong operation Chris Hunter is putting together."

Democrats would have to win 24 seats in November to regain control of the House.

Hunter has raised $422,874 in his first bid for elected office, and Bilirakis has brought in $1.3 million.

About half of Bilirakis' support has come from political committees and special interest groups. About 3 percent of Hunter's contributions are from political committees, mostly tied to Democratic leadership.

Bilirakis declined a request for comment Wednesday. Campaign manager Towson Fraser said Bilirakis was "busy on the floor of Congress voting on important issues and doesn't have time to comment on partisan political strategies."