Laurel Lee brings in big money in crowded race for Florida congressional seat

There are five Republicans and five Democrats vying for the Congressional District 15 seat.
Sunlight shines on the U.S. Capitol dome on Capitol Hill in Washington, Monday, Feb. 21, 2022.
Sunlight shines on the U.S. Capitol dome on Capitol Hill in Washington, Monday, Feb. 21, 2022. [ PATRICK SEMANSKY | AP ]
Published July 22, 2022|Updated July 22, 2022

Republican Laurel Lee, a former secretary of state and former judge, is raking in financial support from big names in Florida politics as she races against a crowded field for a chance to represent parts of northeast Hillsborough, southeast Pasco and Polk County in Congress.

Despite jumping into the race for Florida’s Congressional District 15 only two months ago, Lee’s campaign raised $510,143 in the most recent quarter, about twice as much as the next highest earner.

That puts her campaign’s overall total just slightly behind the $520,160 that state Rep. Jackie Toledo, who has been fundraising for months longer, has raised to date.

But some of the other candidates vying for this seat are also pulling in cash and have their own name recognition. The wide-open seat has attracted a whopping 10 candidates — five Republicans and five Democrats — most of whom don’t even live in the district they hope to represent.

Some of Lee’s campaign cash has come from a $65,000 loan she made to herself, but she’s also gotten donations for former Senate presidents Bill Galvano, Andy Gardiner and Don Gaetz; Attorney General Ashley Moody; and University of Florida Board of Trustees chairman Mori Hosseini.

This is Lee’s first run for elected office. But her husband, Tom Lee, is a former Florida Senate president with a long history in Florida politics.

A political committee associated with Tom Lee recently moved $1 million to the Conservative Action Fund super PAC. That super PAC has already spent about $370,000 on mailers, TV advertising and digital advertising in support of Lee’s campaign.

Laurel Lee has also received support from Americans for Prosperity Action Inc., a group linked to David and Charles Koch. The group has spent at least $45,000 on canvassing and direct mail in support of Lee’s candidacy.

But state Sen. Kelli Stargel, who is also running in the Republican primary, is also getting a boost from outside PAC support. The group Conservative Warriors PAC, a super PAC funded solely with a $1 million donation from a Stargel-associated state political committee, has spent about $433,827 on direct mail and media in support of her candidacy.

Stargel’s campaign itself has raised $254,105. That’s the second-highest total for this quarter but still less than half as much as Lee brought in. Stargel received donations from some of her colleagues in the Senate, including incoming Senate President Kathleen Passidomo. She also loaned herself $50,000.

Lee, Stargel and several other 15th District candidates jumped into the race fairly late as many waited to see how Florida’s once-a-decade redistricting process would shake out.

Toledo was one of the first to announce her campaign for the seat, but her total haul of $167,133 this quarter was the smallest of the Republican candidates. However, she was the only Republican candidate not to loan money to her campaign.

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Republican Kevin McGovern, a former U.S. Navy captain, raised a total of $229,547, but nearly all of it came from a loan he made to himself. Former U.S. Navy Commander Demetrius Grimes raised a total of $219,014, $150,000 of which came from a loan he made to himself.

The latest campaign finance results show that jockeying in this race is far from over.

The polling analysis website FiveThirtyEight is projecting that Toledo will likely win the Republican primary race and the seat overall.

But some have disputed this analysis, noting that many candidates in the race jumped in only months ago and that a lot could change in these final weeks.

Related: 538 gives Democrats slim odds to win new Florida congressional district

Among Democrats, Eddie Geller, a former comedian and video producer, brought in the largest haul with $153,849 — outraising Alan Cohn, a former investigative journalist who has sought congressional office twice before, who raised $78,556.

Both men far outpaced their three Democratic rivals: strategist Gavin Brown, who raised $15,403; president of the Democratic Hispanic Caucus Cesar Ramirez, who raised $13,765; and retired U.S. Postal Service worker Bill VanHorn, who raised $7,395, nearly all of it a loan from himself.