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Scott Franklin ousts Ross Spano in 15th Congressional District primary

Franklin, a city commissioner from Lakeland, said he ran against Rep. Spano over fears that he would not be able to beat a challenge from a Democrat in November.

An upset had been brewing for Republican Rep. Ross Spano’s 15th Congressional District seat since he took office in 2018.

That upset became reality on Tuesday when Lakeland City Commissioner Scott Franklin won with 51.3 percent of the vote in the Republican primary, claiming him a spot to face off against Democrat Alan Cohn and a chance to retain the coveted seat for Republicans in November’s general election.

Florida’s Congressional District 15 stretches from Lakeland to Clermont to the northeastern suburbs of Tampa.

Franklin, 55, had fewer votes than Spano in Lake and Hillsborough counties but won the primary by having a nearly 6,000-vote advantage in Polk County. Even with the hefty advantage in Polk, Tuesday’s primary came down to the wire and was separated by roughly 1,500 votes.

Franklin had the endorsements by the GOP sheriffs of Lake and Polk counties within District 15, as well as the support of Rep. Matt Gaetz, of Pensacola. He says he ran because he believed Spano wouldn’t be able to defeat a Democrat in November, meaning the seat could’ve been flipped blue in a district that leans Republican.

Republican candidate Scott Franklin campaigns in Lakeland during Tuesday's primary for the 15th Congressional District. [ ERNST PETERS | ERNST PETERS|THE LEDGER ]

Franklin and other Republicans’ worries with Spano go back to 2018, where he is believed to have violated campaign finance law when he defeated Democrat Kristen Carlson.

Spano, 54, admitted soon after winning the race that he borrowed $180,000 from two friends and then loaned $167,000 to his own campaign — a violation of a rule that prohibits candidates from taking more than $2,700 from an individual each election.

The House Ethics Committee launched an investigation into Spano, while the Justice Department opened a criminal inquiry in November 2019.

Spano also faced the challenge of overcoming Gaetz, who has risen to become one of the most prominent pro-Trump representatives in the country. Gaetz spent a large part of 2020 actively campaigning in favor of Franklin, even making personal phone calls to Spano’s constituents in the past week.

“Nancy Pelosi and the Democrats are going to savage Ross Spano,” Gaetz told callers during a “tele-town hall” last Thursday. “He’s a drag. He’s a drain. He won’t help the president get re-elected.”

Spano said in an interview with Spectrum Bay News 9 this month that he did not know his actions were illegal. He instead attempted to frame himself as the victim of a “witch hunt.”

Franklin, who did not file to run against Spano until March, says that he is running to keep the seat red in the general election, something he didn’t believe Spano would be able to do.

“If we’re going to drain the swamp and rid ourselves of corruption, it has to start right here at home,” said Franklin on Aug. 12. “We can’t go to Washington to fix problems if we elect people that we know have broken the law.

“If we can come into this primary and knock off a seated incumbent (after) filing in the middle of March, then it’s pretty clear that the Democrats would’ve taken this seat in November.”

Despite Gaetz’s support of Franklin, Spano still had the support of a majority of Florida Republicans. That included Reps. Gus Bilirakis, Vern Buchanan, Daniel Webster, Greg Steube, Michael Waltz, and Mario Diaz-Balart — plus Sen. Marco Rubio and GOP House leaders.

Spano also had the advantage in the volume of advertisements ran, outspending Franklin $824,000 to $483,000.

Both candidates did not immediately return calls for comment Tuesday night.

Franklin’s opponent in November will be Alan Cohn, a former journalist who defeated Rep. Adam Hattersley in the Democratic primary Tuesday.