When U.S. Representative Dennis Ross announced his retirement back in April, he caused a stampede of candidates to enter the race for his seat.
Ross represented voters in Congressional District 15, which includes the eastern half of Hillsborough County, as well as parts of Polk and Lake County. The seat has traditionally been held by a Republican, but was recently expanded to include more of Hillsborough County.
Veteran political analyst William March said the top tier of candidates in the race is comprised of two Republicans: former state representative Neil Combee of Polk City and representative Ross Spano of Brandon.
"They are the clear frontrunners in the race," March said. "But with an open seat, that gave Democrats the idea they might have a chance to flip the seat, because they are hoping for a blue wave this year."
Democrats Kristen Carlson, Andrew Learned and Raymond Pena, Jr. are vying for Ross' seat alongside other Republican hopefuls including Ed Shoemaker, Danny Kushmer and Sean Harper.
Learned, a veteran and business owner from Valrico, and Pena, a flight instructor from Lakeland, had joined the race more than a year ago, thinking they would be running against Ross. But it's Carlson who has taken the lead in the Democratic field, outfundraising even the Republican heavyweights early on in her campaign.
"The national [Democratic] party has not put this district on their 'red-to-blue list' of seats they think are their top chances for a flip, but Kristen Carlson's strong fundraising could cause people to take a second look," March said.
President Donald Trump has played a central role in the District 15 race, with Democratic candidates vowing to stand up to him, and Republican candidates competing to position themselves as close as possible to the president.
"Combee has used some strongly pro-Trump rhetoric," March said "He says he's running because Donald Trump has called for reinforcements and his reason for running is to go to Washington and help back the Trump agenda."
Other candidates, however, are also trying to position themselves as alongside Trump in the Republican-leaning district. Combee has been called out by his opponents for criticizing Trump during the 2016 primary, calling him a shallow thinker whose campaign rhetoric was "mostly schoolyard insults." An anonymous group even created a website attacking Combee called "Never Trump Neil."
"Of course, a lot of Florida Republicans lined up either with Jeb Bush or Marco Rubio," March said. "A lot of Republicans throughout the state are vulnerable to that charge."
The Republican candidates for District 15 will participate in a debate at Grill Smith, 1569 Town Center Dr., Lakeland, on August 9 at 5:30 p.m.