When Democrat Janet Cruz took on a Republican incumbent in the race for Florida’s Senate in 2018, the victory margin was thin enough to warrant a manual recount. She eventually won by just 411 votes.
Now as the Tampa seat’s incumbent, Cruz herself is readying to fend off a challenger — Republican Jay Collins, a Green Beret veteran who entered the race with Gov. Ron DeSantis’ endorsement.
In a seat that has flipped before, and in a midterm year, when the party of the president tends to do worse, Republicans see Cruz as vulnerable.
And Republicans aren’t just trying to take a blue seat — they’re trying to obtain a legislative supermajority by controlling two-thirds of each chamber. It’s something that DeSantis has said he believes they have the “opportunity” for at a recent campaign rally. If that happens, Democrats, already diminished in power in Florida, would face an even greater uphill climb in passing legislation.
Collins was unopposed in the Republican primary after Shawn Harrison, a former state representative who’d been backed by Republican Senate leadership, withdrew from the race after DeSantis’ Collins endorsement. It was the latest example of the governor getting involved in a legislative race, bucking Tallahassee tradition.
Senate Minority Leader Lauren Book acknowledged that Collins is a competitive opponent but said she believes Cruz will come out on top because of her work in the community. Book helps organize campaign efforts through Senate Victory, the political and fundraising arm of the Senate Democratic caucus.
“He’s a tough opponent because they wouldn’t put him in the race if he wasn’t,” she said.
Collins’ campaign did not return multiple calls for comment.
Cruz said the political makeup of the 14th Senate District is mixed, making landslide victories uncommon.
“This will always be a seat that comes down to a thousand or a couple thousand votes,” Cruz said. “I don’t need to win by 10 points, I don’t need to win by 5 points. I just need to win.”
Though Senate leadership had initially supported Harrison, Senate President Kathleen Passidomo, R-Naples, said she was blown away by Collins the first time they met. She said he’s passionate about education and veterans issues, and his childhood in an agricultural community also makes him familiar with farming needs.
“This is a competitive race, Jay Collins is in it to win, and we’re in it to help him reach that,” she said.
Florida’s 14th Senate District has near-identical boundaries to the ones in the current district Cruz serves. The once-a-decade redistricting process added the neighborhood of New Tampa to the area. The district also includes south Tampa and the westernmost edge of Hillsborough.
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The seat is predominantly white, followed by Hispanic voters, and leans in favor of Democrats.
Collins initially had his eye on U.S. Congress this election cycle. He filed to run against U.S. Rep. Kathy Castor for Florida’s 14th Congressional District, then moved over to the open, Republican-leaning 15th Congressional District before jumping into the state Senate race.
Cruz said she thinks running against Collins makes it an easier race than if she had run against Harrison. She said that while Harrison has roots in the Tampa community, she questioned if Collins has the same deep ties.
“I don’t know how serious he really is about holding office,” she said. “Is he really serious about a Senate seat? Does he really want to be a congressman?”
But Passidomo said it seems like there’s not a person in the state Collins hasn’t met or called, and referred to his “servant’s heart” for the community.
About 66% of the money Collins has raised through his campaign account has come from out of state, compared to about 10% of Cruz’s.
Collins, 46, served in the U.S. Army for more than two decades. An injury he sustained during his combat operations led to the amputation of his leg. After leaving the Army, Collins went to work for a nonprofit, Operation BBQ Relief, which provides hot meals for victims of disasters. Collins’ website does not highlight any particular issues, but he’s spoken about wanting a better economy and his desire to “protect and provide for American families.”
Cruz, 66, is a fourth-generation resident of Tampa. Before serving in the Florida Senate, she spent eight years in the Florida House of Representatives and was minority leader. When she ran in 2018, public education was a major focus of the race, with Cruz advocating for more public school support and stronger gun safety in light of the Parkland shooting. Along with schools, her website highlights supporting local businesses and making health care more affordable by capping insulin costs and expanding Medicaid.
Most state legislative races in Florida are not competitive, unlike the 14th state Senate district. At the end of qualifying earlier this year, more than a quarter of the legislative races were decided because there was no opponent.
Every legislative seat was up for grabs this year because of the once-a-decade redistricting process. Of 40 total state Senate races, Democrats failed to put up a candidate in 15 of them.
Senate Victory announced Monday its plan to launch a first-ever bus tour to rally behind five high-target Democratic candidates, including Cruz.
Sen. Jason Pizzo, D-Miami, the incoming leader pro tempore, stressed the importance of holding onto Democratic seats. If Republicans win a supermajority, Democrats won’t get much of a chance to “even engage procedurally,” Pizzo said.
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