What Tampa Bay Republicans running for Congress are saying about the 2020 election

Few of the candidates are willing to say with certainty that President Joe Biden won the election.
Pallets with 355,000 vote-by-mail ballots loaded onto trucks by Hillsborough election officials to be delivered to the post office, on Thursday, Sept. 24, 2020, in Tampa.
Pallets with 355,000 vote-by-mail ballots loaded onto trucks by Hillsborough election officials to be delivered to the post office, on Thursday, Sept. 24, 2020, in Tampa. [ DIRK SHADD | Times ]
Published Aug. 12, 2022|Updated Aug. 12, 2022

In the 2022 race for Tampa Bay’s congressional seats, few Republican candidates are willing to say with full-throated certainty that there was no widespread fraud in the 2020 election.

That follows the trend of the Republican Party: The majority of registered Republicans say they don’t believe President Joe Biden legitimately won the election.

Some Tampa Bay GOP congressional candidates agree with that sentiment, while others have been publicly more guarded in their responses. Even candidates who affirm that there was no widespread fraud in the 2020 election often couch their statement by saying there’s still a further need for election integrity.

The issue has come up in Republican primaries, leveraged by campaigns and supporters as a way to show their candidate is more conservative.

In the Republican primary for Florida’s 15th Congressional District — which covers northeast Hillsborough, southeast Pasco and part of Polk — a super PAC supporting Sen. Kelli Stargel put out a mailer slamming competitor Laurel Lee, Florida’s former secretary of state, for not doing enough to secure the 2020 election. It called Lee out for not permitting “forensic audits” of the results.

A conservative blogger also recently said Lee was “exposed” for accepting “Zuckerbucks” — a term coined by those critical of grant donations to some elections offices from organizations funded by Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg. The grants were a target of Republicans, who said there was not enough oversight of how the money was used. Gov. Ron DeSantis has frequently criticized the money and touted that Florida has since “banned Zuckerbucks.”

Lee has repeatedly said that Florida’s election was accurate and transparent, and has pointed to Florida’s own rules for auditing its elections. DeSantis has also rebuffed calls for a “forensic audit” and said Florida passed its audits “with flying colors.”

Related: How post-election audits work in Florida

Sarah Bascom, a spokesperson for Lee’s campaign, criticized the mailer and said the claims were without merit.

“Suggesting our state’s elections (where Republicans prevailed) were flawed is shameful and reckless,” Bascom said in an email. “Florida deserves better than this from fellow Republicans.”

Still, Lee has raised questions about election integrity outside Florida, saying that “in some states, the rules changed in the middle of the game and in some cases, after the election.”

Stargel did not respond to Times questions after multiple calls and texts to her campaign spokesperson. She previously said that other states shouldn’t have automatically mailed out ballots, but said she wasn’t sure there was fraud in 2020, according to the Lakeland Ledger.

“But there was definitely some things that could have been done differently,” Stargel said, according to the Ledger. “Was it an orchestrated steal of the election? That I can’t speak to, because I wasn’t in those other states.”

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State Rep. Jackie Toledo, who is also running for the 15th District seat, said in an email to the Times that “we will never know for sure” whether Biden won the election, and said something is wrong with the system.

Related: Tampa Bay Times 2022 primary voter guide

Demetries Grimes, another Republican running for the seat, previously slammed comments from former President Donald Trump that the 2020 election had been stolen as “conspiracy theories.” But when asked recently whether Biden won legitimately, Grimes’ spokesperson responded only that the candidate would “lead efforts to promote election integrity.”

In the Republican primary for Pinellas County’s 13th Congressional District, both attorney Kevin Hayslett and law student Moneer Kheireddine, when asked by the Tampa Bay Times, said Biden won the election. But Hayslett also said he was still “concerned about the security of our elections.”

Anna Paulina Luna, who won the primary for the 13th District in 2020 and is running again for the seat, did not reply to Times questions. But Luna, who has been endorsed by Trump, has made previous comments calling the 2020 election compromised. And Christine Quinn, a business owner who went to the Jan. 6 rally for Trump in Washington, D.C., has said Biden did not win the election.

Another 13th District Republican candidate, Amanda Makki, went to Wisconsin as a volunteer attorney for the Trump campaign during the 2020 election recount. She didn’t directly answer whether Biden won the election, but said unclean voter rolls and universal mail ballots led to “confusion, chaos, uncertainty, and a dangerous lack of trust in the electorate.”

“The fact is — which is indisputable — the Democrats rigged the 2020 election by imposing partisan laws in a number of states that made it easier to cheat,” said Makki, who is a Republican strategist.

In Florida’s 14th District, which now covers part of Hillsborough and Pinellas, Republican candidate James Judge told the Times that he believed there was cheating, “but I do not know if it was enough to flip the election.” Judge said he still has faith in the process.

U.S. Rep. Vern Buchanan, a Bradenton-area representative who is running for reelection to the 16th District seat, voted to certify the electoral college result despite objections from some Republicans in the chamber.

His primary opponent, Martin Hyde, skirted around the question of whether Biden won and said he thinks there are “legitimate questions of election and ballot security which haven’t been addressed.”