In Tampa Bay’s most competitive congressional seat, do Democrats have a chance?

Despite political analysis that says the seat is likely to swing for a Republican, Cohn said the district is winnable for Democrats.
Republican Laurel Lee, left, and Democrat Alan Cohn are set to face off for Florida's 15th Congressional District.
Republican Laurel Lee, left, and Democrat Alan Cohn are set to face off for Florida's 15th Congressional District. [ courtesy Laurel Lee and Alan Cohn ]
Published Sept. 6, 2022|Updated Sept. 7, 2022

Alan Cohn wants people in the 15th Congressional District — and Democrats across the state — to know one thing: A Democrat can win this Tampa Bay seat.

Republicans disagree.

Florida’s 15th District, an open seat created during the once-a-decade redistricting process, is the most purple of any of Tampa Bay’s congressional races. But even as Republicans and Democrats battle for control of Congress in a fiery midterm year, many national groups are already dismissing the district as an easy win for Republicans.

The sprawling district that includes parts of Hillsborough, Pasco and Polk counties leans red, but the political breakdown is much tighter than in the more Republican-leaning 13th District in Pinellas County and the safely Democratic 14th District in Hillsborough County.

“I was not going to jump in unless I was convinced that this is a race that can be won,” said Cohn, the Democratic nominee for the seat. “When it got down to it, this is one of the swingiest districts in the country.”

He will face Republican Laurel Lee in November.

Cohn, a former investigative journalist, ran for a more heavily Republican congressional seat in 2020 that included parts of Hillsborough, Polk and Lake counties. He lost to Republican U.S. Rep. Scott Franklin. At the time, he was backed by the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee’s selective Red to Blue program, which gives candidates significant financial aid.

Cohn said he thinks he has a better chance with the makeup of the new 15th District, which would have voted for Donald Trump by four percentage points in 2020. The margins in the 2018 governor’s race, where Gov. Ron DeSantis won the district over Andrew Gillum, were even smaller.

But Sarah Bascom, a spokesperson for Lee’s campaign, said they’re confident the state of the economy and inflation under President Joe Biden will make voters go for a Republican.

“The fact that the Democrats are scrambling to save safe Democrat seats across the country, it’s fantasy for them to think they can pick up this seat that has consistently voted Republican,” she said.

Cohn points to voter registration numbers being in his favor. About 35% of the registered voters in the district are Republican and about 35% are registered Democrats, a near-even matchup, with nonpartisan voters making up about 28% of the voter population.

But he’s facing a fundraising deficit against Lee, the former Florida secretary of state who has significant political connections.

Lee has already brought in more than $660,000 to her campaign account. She also received substantial support from outside super PACs, including one funded with a $1 million donation from a statewide committee affiliated with Lee’s husband, former Florida Senate president Tom Lee. A super PAC linked to David and Charles Koch is also behind Lee.

Cohn brought in about $225,000 for his campaign before the primary, according to Federal Election Commission filings, and Cohn said in a statement that he’s raised more than $300,000 to date.

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In midterm years, the party opposite the president — in this case, Republicans — typically do better, which would also boost Lee’s chances.

The Cook Political Report, which offers nonpartisan political analysis, considers the seat a “likely Republican” race and FiveThirtyEight, a polling analysis website, has the seat with Lee winning in most scenarios.

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

Still, Cohn said he thinks that the nonpartisan voters in the district skew more moderate, based on polling, which he thinks can help him. And he believes the setup of the ballot — where congressional races come before the governor’s race — will help avoid a dropoff of voters down the ballot.

Cohn said voters want a candidate who is against the overturning of Roe v. Wade, and said 15th District voters don’t want someone who has spent a career in government.

“At a time when people are cynical and skeptical, I’m the guy that people have watched for years taking on both parties,” Cohn said. “Uncovering problems and solving them. I’m the guy who actually got things done.”

But Camille Gallo, a spokesperson for the National Republican Congressional Committee, dismissed Cohn’s chances.

“Democrats know Laurel Lee is going to defeat Alan Cohn which is why they haven’t reserved any ad time in this race,” she said. “Alan Cohn and his support for Joe Biden’s liberal tax-and-spend agenda is the last thing Florida voters need.”