Florida Republican congressional hopeful with money to spend switches races

Jerry Torres, who has pledged to spend as much as $15 million to win a seat in Congress, now targets Democrat Kathy Castor.
Jerry Torres
Jerry Torres [ Courtesy of Jerry Torres ]
Published June 7, 2022|Updated June 7, 2022

Republican Jerry Torres of Lakeland, a wealthy retiree who promises to spend up to $15 million of his own money running for Congress, now plans to run against U.S. Rep. Kathy Castor, D-Tampa.

The move could give Castor the first high-spending opponent she’s had in years.

But Torres, a political newcomer, will face one of the county’s best-known political names in a Tampa-based congressional district heavily stacked with Democratic voters. That’s if he makes it past the primary.

Torres previously was filed to run in the new Congressional District 15 covering east Hillsborough County, Zephyrhills and western Lakeland.

That put him in a Republican primary with as many as eight candidates including comparatively well-known political veterans — former Secretary of State Laurel Lee, state Sen. Kelli Stargel of Lakeland and state Rep. Jackie Toledo of Tampa.

In a statement, Torres said he’s switching races because he believes District 15 is safely Republican and he wants to try to flip Castor’s District 14 from Democratic to Republican.

In District 14, he’ll face a Republican primary including Republican Coast Guard veteran James Judge, who has announced endorsements from former U.S. Rep. Ted Yoho, R-Gainesville, and Clearwater Mayor Frank Hibbard.

Judge had raised $123,222 for his campaign with $48,275 remaining after expenses at the end of March.

Castor, meanwhile, finished March with $896,688 in cash.

Torres, 65, is a Green Beret veteran who founded and then sold a defense contracting company. He said he has made $5 million of his own money available to his campaign and is willing to spend up to another $10 million on the race.

No previous Castor opponent has mounted a seven-figure campaign.

Before this year’s redistricting, the Tampa-based district already leaned significantly Democratic, and Castor has won re-election easily since taking office in 2006.

But the redistricting map proposed by Gov. Ron DeSantis and passed by the Republican-controlled Legislature added even more Democrats in an effort to make the surrounding districts more GOP-friendly.

It now crosses the bay into heavily Democratic southern St. Petersburg and covers territory that voted 58-39 percent for Joe Biden in 2020.

In a news release, Torres said, “I am running to get our country back on the right track, and the best way to do that is flipping a seat currently held by a Democrat who supports the administration’s failing policies.”

Torres moved recently to Lakeland after living in Pine Island. He was previously registered to vote in Hallandale Beach in Broward County.

Castor campaign spokesman Clay Phillips suggested Torres was unknown in Tampa.

“We’ve never connected with him in our work here and don’t know anything about him,” Phillips said. “We’re just going to continue to do the work we always have done and not take anything for granted.”

Phillips said Castor “will be the only one in the race that qualifies by petition, which shows we’ve been here and our neighbors support us.”

Judge said he thinks voters “will choose the hometown guy who was born and raised and operates a business here … I have zero intention of being bullied out of the race by a millionaire who just moved here from South Florida a few weeks ago and hasn’t even finished unpacking.”

In an interview, Torres said he’s now looking to buy a home in Pinellas County.

He said his military career and business have caused him to travel and live all over the world, but that his home of record has always been in Florida, his family are Floridians, and that he has connections to Tampa including having been stationed at MacDill Air Force Base.

Congress members are required to live in the states they represent, but not necessarily the districts they represent.