Tampa Bay’s 5 congressional seats were up Tuesday. Here’s what happened

Luna, Lee triumph in newly drawn Tampa Bay congressional districts
Laurel Lee, left, and Anna Paulina Luna won their GOP primaries in two newly drawn districts in Tampa Bay on Tuesday.
Laurel Lee, left, and Anna Paulina Luna won their GOP primaries in two newly drawn districts in Tampa Bay on Tuesday. [ Times Staff, Lee Campaign ]
Published Aug. 24, 2022|Updated Aug. 24, 2022

Tuesday was a promising night for Anna Paulina Luna and Laurel Lee, who prevailed in crowded GOP fields in newly drawn Tampa Bay congressional districts that favor Republicans.

And the congressional incumbents in Hillsborough, Pasco and Manatee also easily beat back challenges from within their parties.

The most watched race was Pinellas’ 13th Congressional District, an open seat thanks to the gubernatorial run of Charlie Crist, a Democrat. Luna won the GOP primary with 44% of the vote.

Luna now will face Democrat Eric Lynn, who briefly ran for the seat in in 2016. Although Lynn is a tested candidate with a prowess for fundraising, he’ll face a disadvantage because state lawmakers redrew the Pinellas district so that it now leans Republican. Because this district was formerly held by a Democrat, if Republicans pick the seat up it will boost their national efforts to flip the U.S. House. They could gain control if they flip five seats now held by Democrats. Lynn didn’t have a primary opponent.

In the 15th District, two finalists for November’s general election emerged from a newly created district, which also favors Republicans, and includes parts of Polk, southeast Pasco and northwest Hillsborough counties.

The high-dollar, closely watched GOP primary saw Lee, a former Florida secretary of state, emerge from a field of five.

Democrats voted for Alan Cohn to face Lee on Nov. 8.

Longtime Tampa Bay congressional incumbents fared well. U.S. Reps. Kathy Castor (14th, a Democrat) and Republicans Gus Bilirakis (12th) and Vern Buchanan (16th) coasted to victory and are strongly favored to win the Nov. 8 general election.

Bilirakis romps in 12th District

Bilirakis, 59, emerged victorious Tuesday night in the Republican primary for the congressional seat that he has held for seven terms.

Some had questioned whether redistricting — which pushed Pinellas County out of the district’s boundaries — would hurt the Palm Harbor Republican. But Bilirakis won a decisive nearly 81% of the vote, according to incomplete and unofficial returns.

Bilirakis will face Democratic challenger Kimberly Walker, a U.S. Army and Air Force veteran, in the general election. But the district — which includes Citrus, Hernando and much of Pasco counties — remains one of the safest Republican havens in Florida.

Luna wins Republican primary in Pinellas County’s 13th District

Luna, 33, the U.S. Air Force veteran who won the Republican primary in 2020, won again and will face Democrat Eric Lynn, who did not have a primary election, in the fall.

At a watch party, Luna said she was excited to “hopefully” be the next representative of Gov. Ron DeSantis’ hometown and looked forward to serving Pinellas.

“President Trump… I kicked ass like you wanted me too,” Luna tweeted shortly after 8 p.m.

Endorsed by former President Donald Trump, Luna won with 44% of the vote, defeating attorney Kevin Hayslett, strategist Amanda Makki, law student Moneer Kheireddine and business owner Christine Quinn.

Florida’s 13th Congressional District covers nearly all of Pinellas, excluding the eastern part of St. Petersburg. After the once-a-decade redistricting process, the district’s boundaries were changed in a way that made the seat much more favorable for Republicans, compared to before, when it leaned in favor of Democrats.

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But even then, the district was a target seat for the National Republican Congressional Committee, which hoped it could help them win back control of Congress.

Luna has built a reputation as a firebrand, coming from a background as a conservative commentator for groups like the youth-focused Turning Point and Hispanic-focused El American.

Castor notches easy win in Democratic primary in Hillsborough’s 14th District

Castor won easily in a district centered in Tampa that was redrawn this year to take in much of St. Petersburg’s waterfront.

Castor, 56, won more than 90% of the vote, besting Christopher Bradley, a defense contractor. The eight-term congressperson will face GOP primary winner James Judge in November.

The district covers most of Tampa and was already considered a safe seat for Democrats. The redistricting earlier this year made it even more so. Castor still sits on a massive campaign cache in advance of the general election.

James Judge emerged from a three-person field to win the district’s Republican primary, with 53% of the vote, followed by Jerry Torres and Sam Nashagh.

Lee and Cohn emerge in 15th District

A crowded field of 10 candidates — five Republicans and five Democrats — is now narrowed to the final two who will fight for the open seat in November: Lee, who oversaw the 2020 election as Florida’s secretary of state, and Democrat Alan Cohn, a former journalist.

Florida’s 15th Congressional District covers parts of northwest Hillsborough, southeast Pasco and a portion of Polk, including some of Lakeland, created during Florida’s redistricting process.

Among Republicans, Lee, 48, won with 42% of the vote, defeating Florida Sen. Kelli Stargel, Florida Rep. Jackie Toledo, U.S. Navy commander Demetries Grimes and U.S. Navy captain Kevin McGovern.

“We have a lot of work to do to take back Congress,” Lee said. “I look forward to hitting the ground running as we head toward the general election in November and continuing the fight to bring conservative leadership for our area to Washington.”

Lee received financial support from current and former Republican Florida politicians. She was also bolstered by a super PAC funded with a donation from a statewide political committee associated with Tom Lee, Lee’s husband and a former Senate president. This was Laurel Lee’s first run for office.

For Democrats, Cohn won with 33% of the vote, defeating video producer Eddie Geller, strategist Gavin Brown, president of the Democratic Hispanic Caucus of Florida Cesar Ramirez and retired U.S. Postal Service worker Bill VanHorn.

Buchanan wins Republican primary for 16th District

Veteran Republican Vern Buchanan has only been challenged in a primary three times since he was first elected to office in 2006.

On Tuesday, he showed again why he is such a formidable political foe, easily besting GOP primary challenger Martin Hyde, a British-born Sarasota businessperson with more than 86% of votes.

Buchanan, 71, who has a net worth of more than $125 million, raised $3.7 million for his campaign, compared to the $230,000 raised by Hyde.

Buchanan will now face lone Democratic qualifier Jan Schneider and write-in candidate Ralph E. Hartman in the November general election. If successful, and the Republican Party wins control of the U.S. House, Buchanan is expected to be one of his party’s front-runners to chair the influential Ways and Means Committee.

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