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Rare open seat draws big party money in Hillsborough-Polk congressional race

They’re funding home-stretch TV campaigns in District 15 on behalf of Democrat Alan Cohn and Republican Scott Franklin.

TAMPA — Politically wounded over a campaign finance investigation, incumbent Ross Spano drew lots of challengers in the race for congressional District 15.

Now, with Spano out, the Democrat and Republican who emerged as nominees are drawing big injections of party cash and plenty of high-profile endorsements.

Voters who didn’t tune into the race when there were six contenders can hardly miss it now with the launch of television commercials this month by the campaigns of Democrat Alan Cohn and Republican Scott Franklin.

TV commercials for Democrat Alan Cohn target his opponent's personal wealth and say he favors "fellow millionaires" over the middle class.

They find themselves on a national stage in a district both parties see as attainable as they angle for a majority in the U.S. House of Representatives.

Cohn, a former Sarasota TV journalist, failed in his bid for the seat in 2014 but won the nomination in August by defeating state Rep. and Navy combat veteran Adam Hattersley. Franklin also is a retired naval aviator and was serving his first term on the Lakeland City Commission when he decided to challenge fellow Republican Spano.

Federal investigations into Spano’s 2018 campaign finances continue.

“I was really concerned about the security of the seat and the potential of the seat being in jeopardy with the legal questions surrounding Spano,” Franklin told the Tampa Bay Times this week. “The more I dove into it, the more I decided it’s important that we preserve the conservative ideas that have represented this seat for decades.”

District 15 encompasses a big stretch of the national political bellwether known as the I-4 Corridor — more than half a million voters in parts of Hillsborough, Polk and Lake counties including Tampa’s northern suburbs, Brandon, Riverview, Plant City, Lakeland and Bartow.

The region has cast a reliably Republican vote for generations. But thanks to a recent housing boom, there’s close to an even split between Democrats and Republicans.

Related: In a contested election, this Florida congressional race could decide the next president

The first television commercials of the election cycle air this week for both Cohn, 58, and Franklin, 56. The candidates don’t mince words.

“Multi-millionaire Scott Franklin won’t fight for middle-class families,” Cohn begins. “He supports tax cuts for corporations and fellow millionaires, increasing taxes on 86 million Americans ... Franklin is wrong for Florida, especially now.”

Money for media blitz came late last month after the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee added Cohn’s name to its selective “Red to Blue” program. The list includes 35 candidates nationwide seen as good prospects to flip Republican House seats. One other Florida candidate is on the list — Margaret Good, challenging GOP Rep. Vern Buchanan of Longboat Key. The district includes parts of southern Hillsborough.

The support includes more than money. Candidates also are given access to congressional campaign staff and extensive training.

Cohn, president of AMC Strategic Communications, has yet to file his third-quarter campaign finance report with the Federal Division of Elections, but he announced Friday his campaign had raised $1.05 million during the period. That nearly doubles the $600,879 raised in one quarter by Democrat Kristen Carlson during her failed 2018 bid for the District 15 seat.

The most recent campaign finance reports available, filed July 29, showed Franklin outraising Cohn $587,441 to $579,811. A little more than $400,000 of Franklin’s money came from his own pocket. A managing partner of Lakeland-based insurance firm Baldwin Krystyn Sherman Partners, the wealthy businessman had been his own biggest donor until recent days.

By July 29, Franklin had spent $483,411 on his campaign while Cohn had spent $450,192. Most of Franklin’s donations came from the Lakeland area, within District 15. Cohn’s contributions largely came from zip codes in New York, Sarasota and West Palm Beach.

Franklin’s TV time doubled this week, courtesy of U.S. Rep. Michael Waltz, whose “Florida Warriors” ad spotlights seven Republican candidates seeking election to Congress for the first time with a pledge to fight the Democrats' nationwide campaign.

“Meet the Florida Warriors, some of Florida’s strongest servant voices, patriots running to defend our country, protect our values and provide the reinforcements President Trump needs in Washington," says Waltz, who represents the congressional district centered in Daytona Beach. “If we want to stop socialism and keep Florida red, I need these Florida warriors with me in battle in Congress.”

Franklin’s own 30-second ad is titled “Ready to Serve Again” and highlights his 26 years in the U.S. Navy as he reflects on participating in combat operations in the Persian Gulf, Bosnia and Kosovo, flying fighter jets off the decks of aircraft carriers and returning to active duty after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

“Once again, our country is in crisis,” he says in closing. “Once again, I’m volunteering to serve.”

In a recent poll commissioned by Cohn’s campaign, voters initially favored Franklin 49 percent to Cohn’s 42 percent.

“It’s the top targeted race in Florida, period,” Cohn said in an interview with the Times. “The result of that has been a massive amount of support from around the country.”

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