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Race for new Florida congressional seat could get costly

At least two Republican candidates start out the short race with access to millions in campaign cash.
Former Florida secretary of state Laurel Lee. [STEVE CANNON | Associated Press]
Former Florida secretary of state Laurel Lee. [STEVE CANNON | Associated Press] [ STEVE CANNON | AP ]
Published May 21|Updated May 21

Laurel Lee’s entry to the crowded Republican primary for the northeast Hillsborough-based Congressional District 15 could turn it into a fast, intense financial battle.

Last week, a self-funding political newcomer, Republican Jerry Torres, announced he’ll run for the seat using up to $15 million of his own money.

Jerry Torres
Jerry Torres [ Courtesy of Jerry Torres ]

But Lee, who resigned as Florida secretary of state to run, also has a potential source for a seven-figure campaign — a political fund of about $2.3 million accumulated over a decade by her husband, former state Senate President Tom Lee.

The campaign leading up to the Aug. 23 primary has been shortened by delays in approving a new map of state congressional districts. A short campaign could benefit candidates who start off with substantial campaign money, name recognition or both.

Tom Lee’s political fund, raised partly in anticipation of a possible run for state chief financial officer in 2018, is now in a non-profit political organization and can’t be spent directly on his wife’s congressional campaign. But Tallahassee campaign finance expert Mark Herron said it could be given to another PAC, which could then spend it to promote her candidacy.

The PAC wouldn’t be allowed to coordinate with the campaign, meaning it couldn’t share personnel, consultants, vendors, strategies or other resources.

But that rule is difficult to enforce and campaigns find creative ways of getting around it, including posting strategies and research online, Herron said.

Asked about plans for the money, Lee said he no longer controls it. Stafford Jones, a Gainesville Republican political operative listed in IRS records as its agent, and who has worked with Lee for years, didn’t respond to phone and text messages and emailed questions.

Meanwhile, the top fundraiser in the primary so far is Jay Collins, who started his campaign running in District 14 against Rep. Kathy Castor, D-Tampa, then switched races. He had raised $769,447 and had $338,753 in cash after expenses at the end of March.

State Rep. Jackie Toledo, R-Tampa, had raised $353,027 and had $348,725 in cash.

Former U.S. Rep. Dennis Ross started late and trails in money but may have significant name recognition in the district.

Eddie Geller, the top Democratic fundraiser in the race, had raised $283,814 with $107,112 cash.

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