Congress faces a host of issues in the coming year, from addressing inflation and immigration policy to dealing with Russia, trade and energy, the environment and infrastructure. U.S. representatives are elected to two-year terms and paid $174,000 annually. The winners of the Aug. 23 primary face a general election Nov. 8.
District 13, Republicans: Kevin Hayslett
In this five-person primary, Kevin Hayslett stands out. He is an experienced lawyer with conservative views who would bring a commonsense, fact-based approach to governing. He isn’t shy about making his point, but he seems less disposed to political bomb-throwing just to please an insatiable social media audience. He’s a longtime Pinellas resident and the candidate who best understands the district — its history, its people, its challenges.
Hayslett, 59, has not previously run for elected office. He has positioned himself as a political outsider with the skills to push back against “out-of-touch Washington politicians.” He listed his three top priorities as combating rising inflation, cracking down on crime and preserving personal freedoms. He also said that balancing the budget and paying down the national debt is an important step to getting the country back onto stable financial ground.
He supports a ban on offshore drilling near the coast of Florida and would support a plan that expands the child tax credit if “there are stringent work requirements and the plan will in no way increase taxes or the deficit.” He would not support further restrictions on Second Amendment rights. He thinks Joe Biden won the 2020 presidential election.
Hayslett does not lack confidence, but he’s also personable and sprinkles in enough self-deprecating humor to put people at ease. Hayslett was a well-regarded prosecutor before going into private practice and eventually building his own firm. Many prominent local Republicans are backing his campaign, including Pinellas Sheriff Bob Gualtieri, Polk County Sheriff Grady Judd and Speaker of the House Chris Sprowls.
Anna Paulina Luna, 33, won the Republican primary two years ago, but lost to Democrat Charlie Crist in the general election. Since then, the district was redrawn and now favors Republicans (and Crist decided to run for governor). Luna has led her fellow Republicans in most polls. She is endorsed by Reps. Jim Jordan and Elise Stefanik and former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich. But most importantly for her, she’s also got former President Donald Trump, who called her a “warrior and a winner” in his endorsement.
Luna spent five years in the U.S. Air Force and a year in the Air National Guard. She has predictably conservative views on most of the top issues. Trump’s endorsement makes her a frontrunner in this race, but we worry that if elected she might join the small group of often-unhinged Republican representatives led by Georgia Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene. If Luna makes it to Congress, we hope to be wrong.
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Amanda Makki, 44, has a compelling life story about her family’s challenges after moving to the United States from Iran to avoid religious persecution when she was a little girl. A lawyer, Makki has worked for Alaska Sen. Lisa Murkowski and has served as senior Republican health care adviser for the U.S. Senate and U.S. House. She also worked with pharmaceutical giant Novo Nordisk and was a lobbyist in K&L Gates’ Washington office. At least 13 Pinellas County mayors have endorsed her campaign, including Clearwater’s Frank Hibbard and Largo’s Woody Brown.
Moneer Kheireddine, 26, was raised in the Tampa Bay area and was student body president and university trustee when he attended the University of South Florida. He is currently pursuing a law degree at the Stetson University College of Law in Gulfport. He says he got into the race because “extremists are pushing our republic to the edge.” Kheireddine is strong on some issues but lacks the breadth on other issues of some of his opponents in this race. That said, Congress could use more members with Kheireddine’s energy, personality, level headedness and hopeful outlook.
Christine Quinn, 62, is a local business woman who started My Family’s Seasonings, a Pinellas-based company that sells all-natural seasonings. Her priorities included lowering health care costs, supporting school choice and stopping legislation that is “suffocating American manufacturing.”
The winner of this race takes on Democrat Eric Lynn in the Nov. 8 general election. The Times recommends Kevin Hayslett in the Republican primary for U.S. Representative, District 13.
District 14, Republicans: James Judge
(Editor’s note: Since this recommendation originally published in July, an appellate court ruled that Jerry Torres can remain on the ballot.)
This primary race is unsettled because of a pending legal challenge to remove Jerry Torres from the ballot. But we view James Judge as the stronger Republican anyway.
Judge, 38, is a U.S. Coast Guard veteran who founded a Tampa-based public relations and marketing firm in 2011. He describes himself as “a God-loving, pro-gun” and pro-free speech fiscal conservative, with libertarian leanings “who is willing to take the fight to D.C.” He would decrease regulation and federal spending, look to incentives to jump-start gas production and explore services currently provided by the federal government that could be pushed down to the states.
Judge’s rhetoric has a strident tone, but he also shows a regard for Florida’s natural environment, and a practical side on some hot-button issues, including immigration. He supports a ban on offshore drilling near Florida, and efforts to reduce global-warming greenhouse gas emissions. And Judge is open to a balanced approach to immigration that includes strengthening border security and creating a process through probation and fines where undocumented immigrants might obtain legal status.
Torres, a Lakeland national security contractor, has vowed to spend up to $15 million of his own money to seek the seat. But a lawsuit filed by the state Democratic Party seeks to remove Torres from the ballot, alleging his legally required candidate oath is invalid because Torres was in Africa at the time that three versions of the form were notarized by Mississippi-based notaries. Torres vows to “make our communities safer” and to “slash bureaucratic red tape” but his agenda is unclear. Same with a third candidate, political newcomer Samar “Sam” Nashagh.
Judge at least is making the rounds and engaging with voters. That says something about his sense of accountability. The Tampa Bay Times recommends James Judge in the Republican primary for U.S. Representative, District 14.
District 14, Democrats: Kathy Castor
Kathy Castor has worked tirelessly since entering Congress in 2007 to improve the welfare, vitality and competitiveness of this Tampa district and the larger bay area. She is effective in Washington and accessible back home, and is clearly the better choice in this race.
Castor, 55, worked as an assistant general counsel for the state planning agency and as an attorney in private practice before winning election to the Hillsborough County Commission in 2002. As a commissioner, she championed sound growth, the environment and civil rights, and was a strong advocate for open government and neighborhood equity.
Castor brought that same level head and sensible agenda to Congress. She has attracted key federal investments to major institutions throughout the region, from MacDill Air Force Base and the University of South Florida to Tampa’s port and airport and the James A. Haley Veterans’ Hospital. She has championed children’s health, consumer issues and small business assistance. Castor has long pushed for a permanent ban to oil drilling off Florida’s Gulf coast, and her strong environmental record led to her being appointed chair of the Select Committee on the Climate Crisis. She also has been a leading voice on improving U.S. relations with Cuba, a key priority given the rich population of Cuban Americans in Tampa Bay.
Democratic opponent Christopher Bradley, 45, is a first-time candidate who has worked for more than a decade on cybersecurity issues, including for the U.S. military. Bradley promises to focus more on pocketbook issues affecting the middle class, and he criticizes Castor for paying so much attention to USF and other large institutions.
Castor, though, already focuses enormously on working-class issues, and her support for USF, MacDill and other key players reflects the impact they have on the health and economy of Tampa Bay. She has been instrumental in helping downtown Tampa grow and in helping regional institutions compete internationally. She works hard, is good at constituent service and is easily found back home, hosting job fairs and other events calling attention to regional needs.
The Tampa Bay Times recommends Kathy Castor in the Democratic primary for U.S. Representative, District 14.
District 15, Republicans: Laurel Lee
Republican voters in this newly configured district cannot let the large field distract them from the strongest candidate. Laurel Lee is an experienced and tested public servant who would bring strong conservative values to Washington.
Lee, 48, is a former federal prosecutor and Hillsborough County circuit court judge whom Gov. Ron DeSantis appointed secretary of state in 2019. As secretary, she oversaw Florida’s 2020 elections, which was widely hailed as trouble-free, reflecting the seriousness and attention to detail that Lee brings to public office.
Lee’s agenda is decidedly conservative. She favors spending and tax cuts, would strengthen enforcement along the Mexican border and touts her support for law enforcement, gun rights and religious liberty. She opposes new gun safety measures, including expanded background checks and a ban on assault weapons. Lee opposes abortion but calls it a “very personal decision,” and supports exceptions for rape, incest and life of the mother. Lee supports new energy production but opposes drilling off Florida’s coast, saying it’s a threat to the state’s tourist economy.
Challenger Kelli Stargel, 56, is a state senator from Lakeland who served from 2008 to 2012 in the Florida House of Representatives. She has not offered much on national issues or local needs facing the district, preferring instead to highlight her opposition to mask mandates, transgender athletes and other targets in the never-ending culture wars. Jackie Toledo, 46, a state House member from Tampa first elected in 2016, who represents South Tampa, offers a similarly vacuous agenda. Kevin “Mac” McGovern, 68, a retired U.S. Navy captain, would wring efficiencies out of health care and the military budget. He also favors protecting the agricultural industry with price supports and quality controls. Demetries “Commander” Grimes, a former U.S. Navy officer, promotes a strong defense policy and conservation of natural resources.
Lee is the most thoughtful Republican in the race, and the conservatives’ best hope to win in November. Her keen knowledge of the community would be a plus for residents in this three-county district, which includes eastern Hillsborough, northwestern Polk and southern Pasco counties. She has long reflected well on public service with a respectful demeanor and high professional standards.
The Tampa Bay Times recommends Laurel Lee in the Republican primary for U.S. Representative, District 15.
District 15, Democrats: Alan M. Cohn
Two candidates in this five-person primary stand out — Alan M. Cohn for his policy chops and Eddie Geller for his passion. But Cohn is far better prepared for both the general election and Congress.
Cohn, 59, is a media adviser and former broadcast journalist who ran unsuccessfully for Congress in 2014 and 2020. His top priorities are to curb spending, lower taxes and rebuild the global supply chain,, and he vows to use his skills as an investigative journalist to identify redundancies in the budget. Cohn said he would explore bipartisan agreement on a range of issues. He supports expanding background checks for gun purchases and limiting large-capacity magazines, and he opposes offshore drilling near Florida, a bipartisan cause for the state’s congressional delegation. He also would promote clean energy initiatives and advocate for trade education, prime fields for good-paying jobs in fast-growing Florida.
Geller, 38, is a freelance video producer and first-time candidate who graduated from the University of Florida in 2005. Geller said he was motivated to run after the Jan. 6, 2021, assault on the U.S. Capitol. In terms of policy issues, he runs left of Cohn, underscoring the need to break up corporate monopolies, impose a short-term surtax on the richest Americans and to aggressively confront global warming. Geller maintains flatly that “democracy’s on the line” and that “voters want something new.”
Geller’s focus on making America more affordable, especially in the big areas of housing, energy and health care, should appeal to many. But he might be too progressive for this district. And though Geller grew up in Pinellas, he has lived in Hillsborough only about one year. Ideally, candidates for Congress should have deeper connections to the communities they hope to represent.
William VanHorn, 72, is a U.S. Navy veteran who retired from the U.S. Postal Service after 30 years, including time in Clearwater. He offers a moderate agenda (”Choose policy, not party”), with more centrist steps on immigration, heath care and guns. Two others, Gavin Brown and Cesar Ramirez, are running lower-profile campaigns.
Cohn’s agenda best suits the district and he has demonstrated his commitment to public service. He understands the political process, and his communication skills would make him effective in Congress and with constituent service alike. The Tampa Bay Times recommends Alan M. Cohn in the Democratic primary for U.S. Representative, District 15.
District 16, Republicans: Vern Buchanan
This one’s easy. Vern Buchanan has been a solid voice for Republicans since first being elected to Congress in 2006. He knows his way around Washington and would be the Republicans’ strongest contender in the November general election.
Buchanan, 71, has championed small business, veterans and environmental issues, all of which are important to the Gulf coast district, which includes the Manatee County beaches, Bradenton, Parrish and the eastern suburbs in Hillsborough County. His opponent, Sarasota businessman Martin Hyde, 56, hasn’t fleshed out much of an agenda. He talks about the need to reduce government influence and protect constitutional rights. Hyde also doesn’t support the ban on offshore drilling near Florida, a cause that Buchanan, to his rightful credit, has pushed for years.
Buchanan is the clear choice to face Democrat Jan Schneider in November. The Tampa Bay Times recommends Vern Buchanan in the Republican primary for U.S. Representative, District 16.
The recommendation process
Before making a recommendation, the Times Editorial Board asks candidates to fill out questionnaires and sit for an interview. The process can also include running criminal and civil background checks, interviewing candidates’ colleagues and employers, reviewing voting records and financial disclosures and examining their past and current positions on relevant issues.
Candidates not recommended by the editorial board are offered an opportunity to reply. Judicial candidates may send replies of up to 150 words by 5 p.m. Aug. 4 to Editor of Editorials Graham Brink at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Editorials are the institutional voice of the Tampa Bay Times. The members of the Editorial Board are Editor of Editorials Graham Brink, Sherri Day, Sebastian Dortch, John Hill, Jim Verhulst and Chairman and CEO Conan Gallaty. Follow @TBTimes_Opinion on Twitter for more opinion news.