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GOP picks up Florida congressional seats, dominates Tampa Bay

Republicans Anna Paulina Luna and Laurel Lee win the area’s open Congressional districts.
The U.S Capitol is seen on Election Day in Washington, Tuesday, Nov. 8, 2022. (AP Photo/Mariam Zuhaib)
The U.S Capitol is seen on Election Day in Washington, Tuesday, Nov. 8, 2022. (AP Photo/Mariam Zuhaib) [ MARIAM ZUHAIB | AP ]
Published Nov. 9, 2022|Updated Nov. 9, 2022

Florida is poised to send 20 Republicans to the U.S. House of Representatives, an increase of four from the current delegation — and a help to the GOP’s bid to control Congress.

National Republicans saw Tampa Bay’s open seats as a path toward reclaiming control of Congress in what promises to a divisive and consequential 118th edition of the House of Representatives. Already, top Republicans have promised impeachment investigations into President Joe Biden’s administration, showdowns on the debt ceiling and adding more members who assert, without evidence, that the 2020 presidential election was fraudulent.

Though it was too early to tell if Republicans would take control of Congress again, in Florida’s 13th and 15th districts, Republicans made strides with the victories of Anna Paulina Luna and Laurel Lee, respectively.

Both handily defeated their Democratic opponents and will become the newest members of Congress’ freshman class.

In the rest of Tampa Bay’s districts, the results were in line with years past — Republican U.S. Reps. Gus Bilirakis and Vern Buchanan and Democratic U.S. Rep. Kathy Castor all easily won reelection.

Nationally, Republicans needed only five additional seats to regain control of the House. Florida’s 13th District, an open seat in Pinellas County, was an early target.

Florida gained a new congressional district during the once-a-decade redistricting process because of population growth. The new district map, which is being challenged in court, was drafted by members of Gov. Ron DeSantis’ office.

The map gives a significant advantage to Republicans across the state. Predictions forecast the maps would give Republicans 20 of the 28 seats in Florida’s delegation; Republicans currently hold 16 of Florida’s seats. Across Florida, Republicans also turned out in far higher numbers than Democratic voters.

FL12

Few career politicians can boast the name recognition enjoyed by Republican Gus Bilirakis in Florida.

So it was no surprise that Bilirakis sailed to an undeniable victory over Democrat Kimberly Walker, a U.S. Army and Air Force veteran, with about 70% of the vote.

After the votes were counted, Bilirakis thanked Walker for her “civil debate” on how to better the lives of those in the newly redrawn district and said he felt “humbled by the confidence constituents have placed in me.”

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Former President Donald Trump won District 12 with nearly 70 percent of the vote in 2016. And even though redistricting pushed Pinellas County out of the Palm Harbor Republican’s district’s boundaries, it swept in portions of Citrus, Hernando and Pasco counties that turned Bilirakis’ GOP safe haven even redder.

Bilirakis has been hailed as the most effective Republican lawmaker in Florida by the Center for Effective Lawmaking at Vanderbilt University, and this year, the Lugar Center Bipartisan Index ranked Bilirakis as the 27th most bipartisan member of Congress — the highest ranking of any member of the Florida delegation.

FL13

Republican Anna Paulina Luna will become a new member of Congress after defeating Democrat Eric Lynn with about 53% of the vote.

“I’m honored by the people of Pinellas County’s overwhelming support,” Luna said in a statement. “We will not let them down. It’s time to clean up Washington and take our country back.”

Florida’s 13th District encompasses most of Pinellas County, excluding the eastern part of St. Petersburg. It leans in favor of Republicans and was previously held by U.S. Rep. Charlie Crist.

Luna, a U.S. Air Force veteran and conservative commentator, was endorsed by Trump. Her campaign received financial support from some large conservative action groups, like Club for Growth.

Lynn received about 45% of the vote. Lynn’s campaign hinged on his ability to appeal to nonpartisan and moderate Republican voters, some of whom endorsed him over Luna. He frequently accused Luna of being “too extreme for Pinellas.” Lynn, a national security advisor, received the endorsement of former President Barack Obama the day before the election.

Luna’s campaign focused heavily on border security, American energy production and pushing back against corruption. She has denied the results of the 2020 election, saying she believed Trump won.

In a statement, Lynn said he hopes Luna’s “rhetoric is different from her actions in Washington” but said his “confidence level is low and elections will likely have unfortunate consequences for our Pinellas community.” Lynn also said that “when Ron DeSantis’ illegal gerrymandered map gets thrown out by the courts,” he would return.

Frank Craft, a Libertarian, got about 2% of the vote.

FL14

In the 14th congressional district, Democratic incumbent Kathy Castor, who has held the seat since the 2006 election, won easily over first-time GOP challenger James Judge. Castor captured about 57% percent of the vote to Judge’s 43%.

Castor, 55, touted her legislative acumen during the race, including multimillion-dollar grants for Tampa’s transportation infrastructure, as well as her support for abortion rights and President Joe Biden’s agenda.

Judge, 38, who owns a public relations firm, received endorsements from the state police union, Sheriff Bob Gualtieri and former St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Baker, but fell short of winning over voters in the district, which stretches from Tampa and northwest Hillsborough County across the bay to parts of St. Petersburg.

FL15

Republican Laurel Lee defeated Democrat Alan Cohn in the open 15th District with about 59% of the vote. The 15th District was the most purple of any of Tampa Bay’s congressional seats, though it leaned in favor of Republicans.

Lee is the former Florida secretary of state and was previously a judge. This will be her first time holding elected office. She had a fundraising advantage over her opponent, former investigative journalist Cohn, who received about 42% of the vote.

Florida’s 15th district includes parts of Hillsborough, Pasco and Polk counties.

Like other Republican candidates, Lee ran on the promise of reducing inflation and spending, securing the southern border and supporting law enforcement.

Cohn had run for Congress in 2020 but lost in the general election. He decided to run for the 15th District seat after boundaries were finalized and he saw a path to victory, he said.

FL16

Veteran Republican member of Congress Vern Buchanan easily won reelection to Florida’s 16th Congressional District and will serve a ninth term in the U.S. House.

The Sarasota businessman received about 62% of votes cast in the contest against Democratic challenger Jan Schneider. It’s the third time he has defeated her in a general election.

Buchanan, 71, is regarded as one of the favorites to chair the influential Ways and Means Committee if the midterm elections give the Republican Party a majority in the House.

A Sarasota resident, Buchanan no longer lives in the district he represents. The seat now covers Manatee County and southern Hillsborough County.

Times reporters Anastasia Dawson, Charlie Frago and Christopher O’Donnell contributed to this report.

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