Embattled Florida Republican Rep. Ross Spano lost his primary Tuesday night, becoming the latest lawmaker to be rejected by his party in a cycle that has been unusually treacherous for incumbents.
Navy veteran Scott Franklin was leading Spano 51 percent to 49 percent in the 15th District when The Associated Press called the race just after 9:30 p.m. Eastern time. Franklin will next face former TV anchor Alan Cohn, who was leading a three-way Democratic primary with 41 percent of the vote when the AP made its call.
Spano was already considered one of the most vulnerable Republicans in the state as he faced a federal investigation and the possibility of losing his law license for alleged campaign finance violations over loans the freshman lawmaker made to his 2018 campaign. Spano acknowledged that he had likely broken the law, but insisted that it was a mistake.
Franklin, a Lakeland city commissioner, pummeled him in ads that called him a criminal. The two men shared views on core GOP issues, such as immigration, guns and support for President Donald Trump. But Franklin warned voters that the scandal hanging over Spano would create an opening for Democrats, who are targeting the district, which stretches from the Tampa suburbs to Lakeland.
That argument was advanced in the days leading up to the election by Rep. Matt Gaetz, whose proximity to the Trump White House has made him a powerful force in the Florida Republican Party. In his endorsement, Gaetz called Franklin “the right person to ensure that President Trump has the strongest possible campaign” in the state.
Top House Republicans, including Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy and Minority Whip Steve Scalise, stood behind Spano, as did 11 of the 14 Republicans in the Florida delegation. The anti-tax Club for Growth, which invests heavily in Republican primaries, jumped in with $200,000 in TV and mail ads attacking Franklin and supporting Spano.
But Gaetz disregarded those endorsements and held an emergency tele-town hall last week urging voters to reject the incumbent.
“Nancy Pelosi and the Democrats are going to savage Ross Spano,” Gaetz said during the call, according to the Tampa Bay Times. “He’s a drag. He’s a drain. He won’t help the president get reelected.”
In case anyone missed the message, a group called Wingman PAC — which the Tampa Bay Times reported has ties to Gaetz — spent $116,000 opposing Spano and $9,000 backing Franklin, highlighting the incumbent's campaign finance scandal in TV ads.
Franklin raised $587,000 through July 29 and had $104,000 in the bank. Cohn, his Democratic opponent, took in $589,000 and had $130,000 on hand.
Spano’s loss makes him the eighth House incumbent to be ousted by his party in a primary or convention this cycle, following defeats for Republicans Steve King of Iowa, Denver Riggleman of Virginia, Scott Tipton of Colorado and Steve Watkins of Kansas, along with Democrats Daniel Lipinski of Illinois, Eliot L. Engel of New York and William Lacy Clay of Missouri.
Florida's 15th District backed Trump by 10 points in 2016. Inside Elections with Nathan L. Gonzales rates the general election Lean Republican.