The Cook Political Report has just upped its estimate of Democratic chances to win Congressional District 15 in eastern Hillsborough, Polk and Lake counties, though it still considers Democrats underdogs in the GOP-leaning district.
Meanwhile, Democratic candidate Kristen Carlson has just aired the first TV ad in the race, emphasizing her history working in the citrus industry, long an economic mainstay in the area.
The district is being vacated by Rep. Dennis Ross, R-Lakeland. Five Republicans and three Democrats are competing in primaries, but Cook calls Carlson, a Tampa lawyer who lives in Lakeland, the frontrunner on the Democratic side.
She faces a spirited primary challenge, however, from Andrew Learned, a Navy veteran and tutoring company owner, who's getting support from the progressive side of the party.
Cook switched its rating on the district from "likely Republican," meaning a district where Democrats aren't likely to be competitive, to "leans Republican," meaning a competitive district where Republicans have an advantage.
It's the second such rating change for a previously iron-clad GOP district that covers parts of Hillsborough. Two weeks ago, Cook downgraded the GOP's chances from "likely" to "leans" in Congressional District 16, which covers southern Hillsborough, as well as Manatee and Sarasota counties. It's occupied by long-time incumbent Vern Buchanan.
Cook's analysis notes District 15 voted for Donald Trump over Hillary Clinton by 10 points, 53-43 percent, and Cook's "partisan voting index" rates it R+6, meaning a district that votes 6 percentage points more Republican than the nation as a whole.
But Cook calls that "well within the strike zone of plausible Democratic targets," if there's a quality candidate.
"While Republicans are headed for a messy August 28 primary, Democrats may end up with an appealing nominee," Cook wrote.
On the GOP side, Cook calls the primary a battle between state Rep. Ross Spano of Dover and former Rep. Neil Combee of Polk City.
It notes that Carlson led the field in both parties in fundraising in the most recent financial report, covering the second quarter of 2018.
Spano is currently hospitalized after suffering what his campaign called "a cardiac event" last week following a strenuous workout, but campaign spokesmen say he'll be back on the campaign trail in a matter of days.
In her ad, Carlson talks about mounting a legal challenge in the 1980s as former general counsel for the Florida Department of Citrus against adulterated orange juice products. She promises to "fight Donald Trump and the special interests."
A campaign spokesman said the campaign spent $28,000 on cable TV in the first week of the ad and will be continuing it.
Retired police officer Ray Pena of Lakeland is the third Democratic candidate.
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