The fight for control of Congress runs through Tampa Bay — and in Florida’s open 15th Congressional District, Republican Laurel Lee and Democrat Alan Cohn are each working to convince voters they’re the right pick.
Lee and Cohn faced off in a debate hosted by the Tampa Bay Times and Bay News 9 on Thursday.
Florida’s 15th Congressional District was created during the once-a-decade redistricting process. It covers parts of Hillsborough, Pasco and Polk counties.
Republicans hope that by winning the seat, they can chip away at the fight to regain control of Congress, while Democrats are vying to hold on.
Times political editor Emily Mahoney and Bay News 9 political anchor Holly Gregory hosted the debate between Lee, the former secretary of state, and Cohn, a former investigative journalist. Both candidates emerged from crowded primary races.
Candidates answered questions about the economy, immigration, abortion and more. Here are three takeaways:
Cohn went after Lee. Lee dismissed his attacks.
Less than five minutes into the debate, Cohn took what would be his first of many hits at Lee over the course of the half-hour discussion.
When asked about recovery from Hurricane Ian, Cohn said energy companies and insurers need to be held accountable for raising premiums in the areas affected — and then said those same companies are the ones bankrolling Lee’s campaign.
Lee dismissed much of Cohn’s criticism as “utter nonsense” and did not instigate many attacks.
On a question about the economy and rising costs, Cohn said that he’s a middle-class man, while Lee is from a wealthy family.
“She does not have skin in the game like we do,” Cohn said.
In rebuttal, Lee brought up her record of public service. Lee previously worked as a federal prosecutor and a circuit court judge, saying she had a “spirit of service.”
“That is where I have devoted my professional life as opposed to being in the private sector, where frankly it could have been a lot more lucrative for me,” she said.
Cohn also accused Lee, without detail, of having her money in various shell companies. And he questioned whether she believed in climate change.
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Lee, in turn, called out Cohn over a question about immigration, saying she was surprised to hear him say he supported a closed border.
But the two’s greatest clashing came over the issue of election security and administration.
Election trust and administration were major points.
Hosts asked both candidates if they believed President Joe Biden was fairly elected. Cohn said yes, and said that if Lee disagreed, it should be disqualifying.
Lee said she had “never disputed that Joe Biden today is the duly elected president of the United States.”
Polling shows a large swath of Republican voters believe the election was stolen from former President Donald Trump.
When asked how they could restore faith in the election system, Cohn criticized Florida’s Office of Election Crimes and Security, a Gov. Ron DeSantis priority housed under the secretary of state. Cohn said it was a misuse of time and officers should instead be on the streets, focused on “real crime.”
Lee praised Florida’s election workers and supervisors of election, and said they’re all working hard to follow the law and to make sure “every eligible Floridian understands how to vote.”
Cohn pushed back. He brought up the arrests of 19 people who had voted despite having a disqualifying felony conviction. The arrested individuals had received voter cards, and some of them stayed on the voter rolls for years.
“I don’t believe that’s really competence,” Cohn said.
Those individuals now face up to five years in prison, despite many saying they didn’t realize they weren’t able to vote.
But Lee defended her former office, saying local elections offices, not the Department of State, issue voter ID cards.
“I can assure you there is no group of people in our state who works harder to be sure that eligible Floridians are registered, and those who are not eligible to vote are not on our voter rolls,” Lee said.
Both candidates agreed on key problems. Solutions differed.
Both candidates agreed that the high costs of housing and goods are putting a crunch on working families.
But they differed on who is to blame and how to fix it.
Lee attributed rising inflation to Democrats’ spending and the suppression of American oil production.
“We need to get back to economic policies that make sense, that create a healthy economy in the United States,” she said.
Cohn laid blame on profit-driven companies, like insurers, and said there need to be fixes to the supply chain.
The two also agreed on the need for border security, with Cohn saying there needed to be a bipartisan solution to the waves of immigrants entering the U.S.
Both also disagreed with the idea of packing the Supreme Court by adding more justices and said they would be in favor of term limits for members of Congress.
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