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As the 2020 election cycle begins to heat up, most of the members of Congress in the Tampa Bay area seem to be relatively safe for reelection next year-with the exception of one seat.
Florida's 15th Congressional District has long been a Republican stronghold centered in Polk County. But redistricting has shifted a plurality of district voters into eastern Hillsborough County. And the party breakdown is almost equally split between Republicans and Democrats at 35%, with independents making up the remaining 30%.
These factors- as well as an investigation into alleged campaign finance law violations with incumbent Ross Spano - has the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee targeting the seat as among their top ten in the nation that they hope to flip next year.
But who will that candidate be?
While there are a handful of Democrats have filed for the seat, the two top names in the mix are former broadcast journalist Alan Cohn and state legislator and Navy veteran Adam Hattersley.
"I became tired of talking about the problems. I want to do something about it," Cohn told Spectrum Bay News 9 shortly before a fundraiser was held on his behalf in Sarasota last month. "It's not really that different from when I was an investigative reporter, because when I did that I was an advocate."
A longtime reporter from the northeast, Cohn became known in the Tampa Bay area while reporting for WFTS, the ABC-affiliate in Tampa nearly a decade ago. He ran unsucessfully for the same seat in 2014, but returned back to broadcast journalism at the ABC affiliate in Sarasota year hosting a nightly news program until earlier this year.
Adam Hattersley is a Navy veteran and small businessman who won Ross Spano's former state House seat in the Florida Legislature in 2018. He says running for Congress is an extention of his committment to public service. "It's always been about service for me," he told Spectrum Bay News 9 last month. "I joined the Navy right out of grad school. I was commissioned right before September 11."
While the campaign has barely just begun, tension between the candidates is already evident.
"This is the difference between somebody who has a lifetime of accomplishments," Cohn says speaking about himself, "compared to someone who frankly was elected last November, and served one three-month term to the state Legislatrue and wants to off to the next gig."
"Well, you know, as a reporter, Alan has done nothing but talk," Hattersley says dismissively. "I served eight years in the U.S. military. I carried a rifle everyday for a year in Iraq."
Florida's 15th Congressional District has been a ruby red seat for more than a generation (it used to be the 12th District until there was redistricting earlier in the decade). Donald Trump won it by ten percentage points in 2016, and Cohn lost it by an even bigger margin when he ran against then GOP incumbent Dennis Ross in 2014.
So the question is - why do both Cohn and Hattersley think they have a chance of winning it in 2020? A major factor is the ethical issues surrounding Spano, the Dover Republican who was elected last year after serving in the Legislature.
"We have a corrupt cheater who's a Congressman right now, and the fact is - if we let him get away with this, he's going to keep on doing it," says Cohn.
During his run for the seat in 2018, Spano loaned his campaign more than $100,000 from what he originally reported as personal funds. After he was elected, he admitted that those loans came from two friends, which may have been in violation of campaign finance laws.
Spano did not speak with Spectrum Bay News 9 for this story. He did release a statement after it was revealed that the Justice Department would continue to look into the allegations.
"As I’ve said before, we acknowledged that mistakes were made with respect to the campaign loans, but those mistakes were completely inadvertent and unintentional. We were the ones who self-reported this to the FEC. We are confident that upon review, the Justice Department will see it that way, too."
"Correct me if I'm wrong, but Ross is a lawyer," responds Hattersley. "One of the first things they teach you in law school is that ignorance of the law is not an excuse. So even though he self-reported months after the fact, that does not alleviate him of the responsibility of that decision."
Spano added in his statement that he maintained "doubts" about the timing and motive behind the inquiry, "as the impeachment proceedings...have shown me how far the left will go to destroy their opponents."
That remark led former state Representative Neil Combee, who lost to Spano in the 2018 GOP primary for the seat, to laugh aloud when this reporter read that statement to him.
Though Spano did not speak with Spectrum Bay News 9, Hillsborough County Republican Party Chairman Jim Waurishuk did. He says that the party remains solidly behind the incumbent.
"From everything we've seen, in our discussions with him, there were some mistakes made inadvertently and non-intentionally. He and his campaign brought it forward to the Justice Department and the FEC (Federal Elections Commission), so that's a good thing and there was no effort to cover it up."
Frank Alcock is a political scientist at New College in Sarasota. He believes that the Democrat who survives the primary does have a fighting chance to win the seat in 2020.
"It was more competitive than people though it would be," he says about the 2018 election, in which Spano defeated Democrat Kristen Carlson by just six percentage points.
"Fast forward to the 2020 cycle, Ross Spano has some issues under investigation. It is a competitive district, in terms of the voter registration. So there's a recipe for the Democratic candidate."
Despite Spano's perceived vulnerabilities, no Republican has come forward to date to challenge him in a GOP primary. Combee ended all talk that he would run for the seat when he announced recently that he would instead run for the Polk County Commission.
Then again, qualifiying for the race doesn't take place until next April.
Meanwhile, the two Democrats continue to pile up the endorsements.
Hattersley enjoys the support of much of the Hillsborough County Democratic establishment, and also won the endorsement of Orlando-area Congresswoman Stephanie Murphy.
Cohn has labor support, and high-profile endorsers like former U.S. Senator and Governor Bob Graham, former Congresswoman Gwen Graham and former Massachusetts Congressman Patrick Kennedy.