Lakeland City Commissioner Scott Franklin, who’s opposing U.S. Rep. Ross Spano of Dover in a Republican primary, will pose a serious challenge but faces a tough task in unseating an incumbent congressman from his own party, Polk County political insiders say.
Underscoring that difficulty, Spano’s four neighboring Tampa Bay area Republican House colleagues all endorsed him after Franklin announced last week: GOP Reps. Gus Bilirakis of Palm Harbor, Vern Buchanan of Longboat Key, Greg Steube of Sarasota and Dan Webster of Clermont.
Franklin will also face the problem of building name recognition and raising money while the coronavirus pandemic dampens political activity.
But his challenge also raises Democratic hopes of unseating Spano in the general election if he does win the primary, said Democratic Party spokeswoman Sarah Guggenheim. Fighting off a primary challenger, they hope, will drain his none-too-lavish campaign accounts and divide the party.
In an interview, Franklin said Spano’s 2018 campaign finance irregularities and the resulting investigations were his main reasons for running.
“If not for that, I would be content to see him continue in the seat,” Franklin said. “The district deserves leadership that can be active and trustworthy and get things done. It’s hard to get traction and make progress when you’ve got something like that hanging over your head.”
He also said he’s aware a health crisis is a bad time to mount a campaign, but he had little choice, facing an April 15 filing deadline.
“The timing is awful right now,” Franklin said. “That’s why we didn’t do a press release or any big splash. But there isn’t time to sit and wait.”
Franklin said he faced a short decision window because couldn’t consider running until he sold his business in January. He remains head of Lakeland-based Lanier Upshaw insurance agency, now owned by a Tampa-based firm, but said he now has more liberty for other activities.
Franklin also said he has enough personal wealth to contribute significantly to his own campaign if need be but didn’t give specifics.
He said he’s “absolutely” confident he can raise the needed campaign funds -- “As I evaluated things, that was a critical piece.”
Franklin acknowledged it’s highly unusual for a prominent Republican to challenge an incumbent from his own party, whose members tend to close ranks in the face of any challenge – “History doesn’t show too many people successful at taking on an incumbent,” he said.
But despite Spano’s colleagues’ endorsements, the party establishment may not be unanimous behind him.
Franklin’s campaign consultant is heavyweight GOP insider Marc Reichelderfer, veteran of numerous statewide and congressional campaigns; Franklin’s communications aide is Amanda Bevis, long-time staffer for former Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam of Bartow. Normally, neither would likely be found challenging a sitting GOP congressman.
Franklin, 55, whose family moved here when he was 14, was little involved in politics until he won a non-partisan Lakeland City Commission seat in 2017.
A 1986 U.S. Naval Academy graduate, he flew the S-3 Viking carrier-based torpedo bomber on active duty until 2000, then in the reserves, with several combat-area deployments.
Polk Sheriff Grady Judd said he’s staying neutral in the race but called Franklin “a very well-respected businessman and commissioner and there is no doubt he will pose a very competitive run” against Spano. High-level GOP activist Paul Senft of Haines City said essentially the same, adding that Franklin has Hillsborough connections through his business.
The district, formerly centered in Lakeland, was represented by Polk residents for decades. Spano won it in 2018, after redistricting moved half of it into East Hillsborough.
Polk no longer has a resident Congress member, which bothers some Polk residents and could help Franklin there, Senft said.
In response to an interview request, Spano campaign manager Morgan Parrish said via email, “We are very pleased with the support we are getting in the district … and fellow Florida Congressional Delegation Members. More endorsements will be released in the coming weeks.”
Joyner out of Senate race
Former state Sen. Arthenia Joyner of Tampa says she won’t run again for her old seat, leaving Sen. Darryl Rouson, D-St. Petersburg, with no prominent opponent for re-election.
Both Joyner and Hillsborough County Democratic Party Chairman Ione Townsend said they know of no other prominent Democrat interested in running in the bay-crossing district, 75 percent of whose voters live in Hillsborough. In the past, Hillsborough Democrats have wanted one of their own to represent the district.
Joyner had left open for months the possibility that she might challenge Rouson in a primary for the seat, where she was term-limited in 2016. In the heavily minority district, the Democratic nominee is considered a sure winner. Rouson narrowly won the primary in 2016.
“I take nothing for granted and will continue to work hard as I have in every election,” said Rouson.
Arceneaux signs with Learned
Former state Democratic Party Executive Director Scott Arceneaux has signed on as general consultant for Democrat Andrew Learned’s state House District 59 race, one of the most competitive legislative races in the state.
Arceneaux, party leader from 2009-17, handles congressional and other campaign around the southeast. He was senior strategist for Andrew Gillum’s 2018 gubernatorial campaign.
Learned said Arceneaux’s involvement “shows the legitimacy of the race we’re running — the party and the donors are taking it seriously and the pros want to be involved.”
Both parties are expected to make the Brandon-based district one of their top two or three legislative targets statewide. “Outside of Miami, I’d say it’s number one,” said Arceneaux.