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Coming in November: Battleground Hillsborough

The general election will feature three competitive state House races, one of the state’s top congressional races and a tough countywide commission race.

From its eastern border to its west, Hillsborough County will be a down-ticket political battleground in November, with three competitive state House races, one of the state’s top congressional races and a tough countywide commission race.

Republicans will have substantial fundraising advantages plus districts drawn to their benefit in the legislative races, but Democratic candidates are mounting energetic challenges. The outcomes could depend on wave voting inspired by the top of the ticket.

Pinellas, meanwhile, will see a comparatively quiet general election below the top of the ticket. The most likely fireworks may come in a school board race, and GOP challenges to two county commissioners in hopes of breaking the commission’s Democratic majority.

Here’s a look at the top upcoming races, starting with Hillsborough.

In Congressional District 15, incumbent Republican Rep. Ross Spano lost a primary challenge by Lakeland Commissioner Scott Franklin, who will face former investigative broadcast reporter Alan Cohn in November.

Republican Scott Franklin, on primary election day in Lakeland. ERNST PETERS/THE LEDGER [ ERNST PETERS | ERNST PETERS|THE LEDGER ]

Democrats hoped investigations into Spano’s 2018 campaign finance irregularities would weaken him, giving them a shot at flipping the strongly red-leaning district in east Hillsborough, Lakeland and Clermont. Franklin’s win could hurt the Dems’ chances. Expect significant involvement by both national parties.

Political insiders now expect a second prominent Democrat in the race for the Congressional seat held by Republican Ross Spano — former Tampa Bay area broadcast reporter and anchor Alan Cohn. [Photo courtesy of Alan Cohn]

State House District 64, a likely re-elect for Rep. Jamie Grant, R-Tampa, against challenger Jessica Harrington, a schoolteacher, was thrown into uncertainty as Grant withdrew and was replaced on the ballot by political newcomer Traci Koster. Harrington is running an energetic shoestring campaign. But Koster’s political patron, incoming House Speaker Chris Sprowls, will direct heavy party resources to holding the seat.

Traci L. Koster [ Courtesy of Traci L. Koster ]

In state House District 60, Rep. Jackie Toledo, R-Tampa, will be tough to dislodge in the South Tampa-South Shore-Rocky Point district. But Democrat Julie Jenkins, a marketing specialist for non-profits and a family business, is mounting an active social media campaign. The state Democratic Party is contributing significantly, but Toledo is still far ahead in fundraising.

In state House District 59, Democrat Andrew Learned for now has a cash advantage in the open-seat race in the Brandon-based district. But that’s because Republican Michael Owen, a Tampa lawyer who has heavily funded his own campaign, had to fight a primary battle. In 2018, Democrat Adam Hattersley narrowly won this former GOP bastion, which has been trending Democratic; he left it to run for Congress. Republicans want it back, and Dems want to keep it – the state parties will battle.

In the countywide District 6 County Commission race, incumbent Democrat Pat Kemp faces Republican Commissioner Sandy Murman, who hopes to move from her District 1 seat, setting up an unusual battle between two sitting commissioners. The real estate development industry will contribute heavily to Murman; Kemp is strongly backed by progressive Democrats.

Meanwhile, in Pinellas, former St. Petersburg City Council member Karl Nurse faces Caprice Johnson Edmond for the District 1 school board seat, replacing Rene Flowers, currently the only Black school board member. If Nurse wins, the board will be all white, which has caused consternation among Black and other political activists.

Karl Nurse and Caprice Edmond will compete for the Pinellas School Board District 7 seat in the November 2020 general election. [ Courtesy of the candidates ]

Anna Paulina Luna, Trump devotee and conservative media commentator, will challenge Rep. Charlie Crist, D-St. Petersburg after a tough primary battle. But insiders — and the district’s voting record — suggest it will take a major GOP wave to give Luna a chance. District 13 votes reliably for Democrats and even more reliably for Crist.

Republicans Larry Ahern, a former state House member, and Tammy Sue Vasquez will challenge Democratic county commissioners Janet Long and Charlie Justice, respectively, both in countywide seats. But both Dems have strong fundraising leads and no major political blemishes, and neither appears seriously threatened.

Larry Ahern, a candidate for the Pinellas County Commission. [SCOTT KEELER | Tampa Bay Times]

And Pinellas Democrats hope a blue wave could give Eliseo Santana a chance against Sheriff Bob Gualtieri and Dan Helm a chance against elections Supervisor Julie Marcus, but both are long shots at best.

Dems pick teacher in Senate D21

Democrats have chosen a Bradenton public school teacher, Anthony “Tony” Eldon, to fill an open ballot slot in the District 21 state Senate race covering Manatee and part of southern Hillsborough counties.

Eldon, 23, a first-time candidate for office, is a 2019 University of South Florida graduate and a teacher at Buffalo Creek Middle School in Palmetto. He’s also founder of BLKThought, an Instagram account on black thought and history with more than 70,000 followers.

Anthony “Tony” Eldon [ Courtesy of Anthony Eldon ]

But Eldon, starting from scratch late in the race, will face a tough challenge in the GOP-leaning district against former state Rep. Jim Boyd of Bradenton, who has more than $500,000 in his campaign account and a political committee, Building On Your Dreams.

“I’m banking on word of mouth, digital advertising and opening myself to the public via Facebook Live,” Eldon said.

He was chosen for the ballot slot by a committee of Hillsborough and Manatee Democratic Party officials after candidate Amanda Linton withdrew because of a family move last week.

Term-limited former Senate President Bill Galvano is leaving the seat open.