When Dennis Ross announced his retirement from Congress less than two weeks ago, local Democrats started scrambling for potential candidates in Florida’s 15th Congressional District. The seat which since 1992 has essentially been anchored by western Polk County, now is more influenced by the burgeoning areas of eastern Hillsborough County. The three Congressman elected in the district since 1992 (when it was numbered CD-12) have all been from Polk County.
Despite Ross’s retirement and the excitement of local Democrats, the race remained off the national radar and to a certain extent out of statewide focus as well. The seat is challenging from the Democrats perspective, but isn’t as far gone as many others in the state. In fact, well-funded Republicans have often in the last two decades been kept under 60% here against underfunded and not well-known Democrats. That includes Ross’ last race where he received just over 57% of the vote.
Suburban eastern Hillsborough is quickly growing and changing. These areas trended toward the GOP in the 2014 and 2016 elections, thus being largely responsible for cutting both Charlie Crist and Hillary Clinton’s winning margins in the county below that of Barack Obama and Alex Sink before them. But Polk County itself unlike areas similar demographically in the rest of the state and nation is not trending toward the GOP – in fact if anything it is going the other way as the era where “Imperial” Polk County’s Democrats were seen as potential party switchers in the 1980’s and 1990’s has long since past, and the area has settled into a bit of a partisan stalemate. In fact, recently Polk has held firm in its Democratic numbers while Eastern Hillsborough with its consistent transient nature may in fact provide reduced margins for the GOP in 2018 and beyond.
In terms of the Democrats currently running for the seat, only Andrew Learned, a US Navy Veteran and Small Business owner, is considered to be at least partially viable. The other candidates for the seat have raised less than $100,000 between them, while Learned has raised $123,000 as of 3/31 and had $39,000 on hand. Despite his on paper advantage in the primary, Learned’s fundraising has been anemic compared to Democratic front-runners in neighboring districts, and his spending and staffing doesn’t suggestion he’s in a position to significantly ramp up after Ross’s retirement. Learned fits the profile of an attractive paper candidate for the Democrats but one who regularly cannot break the 45% mark in this district come November.
Private polling conducted in the race prior to Ross retirement announcement that was obtained by The Florida Squeeze indicates the seat was competitive, even with Ross running, but still had a slightly Republican lean, favoring Rick Scott over Bill Nelson in the Senate race, for example. Voters in FL-15 generally appear to be shifting towards the Democratic party overall, in a similar pattern as we have seen with the national generic ballot and special election results across Florida and the nation (5-8 point shift for 2018). A strong Democratic candidate would put this open seat in play, and it is critical towards national control of the House by Democrats. However, that candidate doesn’t exist right now, and the fire and fury of Alan Grayson is unlikely to appeal to older moderate voters in the district, despite his significant ability to raise money. A candidate with local ties and professional contacts in the area is critical. The GOP has no absence of potential candidates in this seat but given the national trends most of the strongest prospective candidates are already opting to pass.
Along with DC-6, the seat being vacated by conservative firebrand Ron DeSantis who is running for Governor, CD-15 represents a seat that could flip parties in a wave election, the type of districts that the morning after wave elections we’ve historically scratched our heads about. Keep an eye on both CD-6 and CD-15 as the fall approaches.