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Democrats’ dilemma: Picking a congressional challenger in District 15

Both Democrats are vying to be the moderate in the race.

The Democratic primary to choose a challenger the congressional seat held by Republican U.S. Rep. Ross Spano is becoming a left vs. right battle as Democrats ponder which candidate gives them the best shot at flipping the GOP-leaning District 15.

Both leading Democratic candidates, Alan Cohn and state Rep. Adam Hattersley, say they’re the moderate in the race.

But Hattersley says Cohn is “racing to the left” and too liberal for the district. Cohn, meanwhile, questions whether Hattersley is a true Democrat, saying he’s at best “an ultraconservative Democrat” whose stances won’t help struggling middle-class families.

A third candidate, Jesse Philippe, doesn’t appear to have made much impact. Despite having filed a year ago, he hasn’t reported any campaign fundraising.

Spano faces a primary challenge from Lakeland City Commissioner Scott Franklin.

The district, covering east Hillsborough, Lakeland and Clermont, is red-tinged — it voted for both Rick Scott and Ron DeSantis by about 7 points in 2018 and for Donald Trump by 10 points in 2016, according to MCI Maps.

But Democrats think it’s one of only two or three GOP-held congressional seats in Florida they have a chance to flip, because of pending ethics investigations into Spano’s 2018 campaign fundraising.

Cohn, a former investigative broadcast reporter, says he’s the candidate to make the case against Spano, whom he calls corrupt.

He notes that Hattersley didn’t register as a Democrat until his 2018 state House run, doesn’t support an assault weapons ban and has been endorsed by the conservative Blue Dog Democrats caucus.

That group, Cohn said, weakened Obamacare and included the only Democrats to vote against a $15 minimum wage.

In a recent Tiger Bay Club forum, he charged that Hattersley has flip-flopped on the $15 minimum wage to try to win organized labor support.

“Adam is a typical politician,” changing views depending on the audience, Cohn said in an interview. “He has a conservative agenda that doesn’t do any favors for working families.”

Hattersley acknowledged he was registered no-party and didn’t care much about partisan politics before being asked to run as a Democrat in 2018. He said he supports a phased-in $15 minimum wage, although in a September television interview, he said he supported an increase “but not necessarily to $15.”

Hattersley said he favors universal background checks for gun purchases, as most Americans do.

In a district with a slight GOP registration edge and 28 percent no-party voters, he said, “A more moderate Democrat, especially fiscally, is the only way to appeal to those voters.

“I’m the only Democrat to win a race in this area in over 20 years,” he said, noting his legislative district was formerly held by Spano and overlaps with the congressional district.

Correction: There is a Republican primary in the District 15 congressional race. An earlier version of this story incorrectly described the race.