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Donna Shalala leads Democratic hopes in Congressional races

Shalala poised to take Ros-Lehtinen seat.
Published Aug. 29, 2018

WASHINGTON — Florida Democrats positioned themselves to gain at least one seat in Congress following Tuesday's primary that set up several competitive general election races, including some in Tampa Bay, that factor into the national fight for control of the House.

Former federal prosecutor and FBI agent Chris Hunter swept the Democratic primary for Florida's 12th District and will take on Rep. Gus Bilirakis, R-Palm Harbor, who is running for a seventh term. Hunter has been deeply critical of Bilirakis' record, support from the pharmaceutical industry and special interest groups.

"Voters throughout my district are ready for honest leadership and a renewal of an American service ethic that really has the power to be transformative," said Hunter, who has attracted the attention of national Democrats but faces a well-known opponent. "That transformative power is something that can get us through a very difficult time."

Bilirakis said he looked forward to debating his rival "on the issues that matter to our community, and expect a spirited campaign that will highlight my record of service for the constituents of Florida's 12th congressional district."

Nearby, Republican George Buck beat another first-time candidate in the race for District 13, which stretches from St. Petersburg to Clearwater. He faces incumbent Rep. Charlie Crist, the former governor elected in 2016 to a district that leans Democratic.

"I'm going to run on my character and my policies, not only the Republican ticket," Buck said. He said he wants to prevent sewage from being dumped into the bay and use his experience as a veteran when making decisions related to national security.

Much of the statewide focus was on a trio of races in Miami-Dade.
Donna Shalala, a former health secretary under President Bill Clinton and former president of the University of Miami, emerged from a packed Democratic primary to replace longtime Republican Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen of District 27.

Fending off a chief rival who said she was not liberal enough, 77-year-old Shalala is now heavily favored in November, in a district that voted for Hillary Clinton over Donald Trump in 2016 by nearly 20 percentage points. She faces Republican Maria Elvira Salazar.

Two other Miami-based seats are also in contention, with Debbie Mucarsel-Powell emerging to take on Rep. Carlos Curbelo, one of the most vulnerable Republicans in the country, in District 26. In District 25, Mary Barzee Flores will challenge Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart.

Democrats currently have 11 congressional seats versus 16 for Republicans. Nationally, Democrats need a net gain of 23 seats to capture the House, which an array of analysts say is possible but will be close.

Women candidates are running in droves and Florida is no exception.

Lauren Baer, a former State Department official, won her primary to take on freshman Rep. Brian Mast, R-Palm City, in swing District 18 that also factors in the national battleground.

Facing one of his toughest challenges yet, Sarasota Republican Rep. Vern

Buchanan of District 16 got his expected challenger in Democrat David Shapiro. Buchanan began TV ads remarkably early, one casting him as an "independent leader" while Democrats have pounded him over a yacht purchase made on the day the GOP passed its tax bill.

Republicans waged spirited primaries in two seats held by GOP members who decided to retire: Reps. Dennis Ross of Lakeland and Tom Rooney of Okeechobee.

Ross Spano bested Neil Combee for the Republican nomination in a race that saw each candidate playing up their fidelity to Trump, who remains wildly popular among the base. Spano will face Democrat Kristen Carlson, a lawyer in Tampa, and he is the early favorite given the district's partisan makeup.

Similarly, state Sen. Greg Steube, who won the primary to replace Rooney, is well positioned in the general election in District 17 against Democrat April Freeman.

In other notable races, former liberal Congressman Alan Grayson of Orlando lost a comeback bid against Democratic Rep. Darren Soto.
Panhandle Republican Rep. Matt Gaetz dispatched a primary challenge from

Cris Dosev, who tried to emulate Trump's campaign tactics but was no match for the incumbent who has become one of Trump's biggest defenders and was awarded with an endorsement and visit from Trump's son, Don Jr.
U.S. representatives earn $174,000 a year and are elected to two-year terms.

Times staff writers Tracey McManus, Sara DiNatale and Anastasia Dawson contributed to this report.

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