Some of the biggest names in Florida Democratic politics are taking sides in the primary fight for a highly coveted east Hillsborough congressional seat.
Former Gov. Bob Graham and his daughter, ex-U.S. Rep. Gwen Graham, are endorsing former television journalist Alan Cohn in the race to take on embattled U.S. Rep. Ross Spano in Florida’s District 15.
But State Rep. Adam Hattersley has also declared that he is running for that seat, and on Wednesday, his campaign announced support from U.S. Rep. Stephanie Murphy, a Winter Park Democrat with a reputation as one of Congress’ most independent lawmakers.
The dueling endorsements underscore the tremendous emphasis Democrats have placed on flipping this district from red to blue. But they also make clear that whoever is selected to take on Spano will first have to go through a tough primary.
In statements provided to the Tampa Bay Times, both Grahams shared glowing remarks about Cohn’s decades working as an investigative reporter in Miami and Sarasota.
“I have both campaigned alongside Alan and been a guest on his show on ABC7 (in Sarasota),” Gwen Graham said. “I know firsthand the tenacity Alan will bring in asking the right questions in Congress and getting results for people of the 15th district. Having served in Congress, I can tell you myself that we need more people like Alan up in Washington who are not afraid to speak truth to power.”
Cohn is on a roll after picking up the endorsement of the local Teamsters union last week. He also made a bit of a splash shortly after entering the race when he appeared on the show of YouTube progressive commentator Cenk Uygur, “The Young Turks,” one of the most watched news programs on the Internet.
Meanwhile, Hattersley comes with a track record of having recently won an election in Hillsborough County, and in a red-leaning district. He defeated Republican Joe Wicker in 2018 for the state House seat Spano vacated to run for Congress.
A Navy veteran and engineer, Hattersley also has the backing of 314 Action, an organization that seeks to elect more scientists, tech workers and engineers to office. The group has promised significant investments in the race on Hattersley’s behalf.
Murphy knows something about what it takes to flip a seat. She defeated 12-term incumbent Republican John Mica in 2016 and then won reelection last year in one of the most competitive districts in the country.
Her endorsement of Hattersley comes with the additional backing of the Blue Dog Democrats, a group of lawmakers committed to crossing the aisle. U.S. Rep. Charlie Crist of St. Petersburg is also a member of the caucus.
Hattersley “will be a great addition to the Blue Dog Coalition,” Murphy said. "Most importantly, he’ll join us in promoting bipartisan cooperation and working to always put people over politics.”
Florida’s 15th District is one of a handful of races that national Democrats are targeting to turn blue in 2020. Not only is the district becoming more purple, but Spano, a Dover Republican, brings a ton of baggage to the race. He is facing a criminal investigation into alleged campaign finance irregularities by his 2018 campaign. Because of the probe, Republicans are considering a primary challenge to Spano, the Lakeland Ledger reported last month.
The Grahams believe Cohn is best suited to take on Spano. Cohn lost a race for the same seat in 2014 to Republican Dennis Ross.
Bob Graham, who also represented Florida in the U.S. Senate, cited Cohn’s reporting on a homeless Vietnam veteran who had trouble accessing his benefits.
“Alan brought this man’s story to my attention when I was a Senator, and together, we helped reverse the VA’s decision and award the man $60,000 in back benefits,” Graham said. “I know Alan will be a workhorse in Congress because I have seen him fight for people firsthand.”
Florida’s 15th congressional district includes a large swath of east Hillsborough County and parts of Polk and Lake counties.