Ex-lawmaker Combee to run for congressional seat

Neil Combee, who left his state House seat last year for a job in the Trump administration, became the latest candidate to jump into the contest to replace retiring Central Florida Congressman Dennis Ross.

Combee, a Polk County Republican, said Tuesday he is running in Congressional District 15 to better support President Donald Trump’s agenda. His announcement came a day after state Rep. Ross Spano, R-Dover, announced he would enter the contest in the Republican-leaning district, which is made up of parts of Polk, Hillsborough and Lake counties.

Combee, first elected to the Florida House in 2012, was named in November by Trump as state director of the federal Farm Service Agency.

“I accepted his appointment because I wanted to help support his America First agenda and be a part of making America Great Again,” Combee said in a prepared statement. With Ross’ retirement, Combee said serving in Congress would allow him to more directly “support the president and his vision for our great country.”

Combee is a former board member of the Southwest Florida Water Management District and served on the Polk County Commission.Spano had been running in a four-way Republican primary for state attorney general before he decided to shift to the Washington race.

Ross, a Lakeland Republican, announced last week that he would not seek a fifth term in Congress. Some candidates for the seat had already opened campaign accounts before Ross decided to retire, but the field to replace him is expected to further expand as qualifying for congressional races begins April 30 and ends May 4.State Sen. Tom Lee, R- Thonotosassa, is mulling a number of political options, including a bid for Ross’ congressional seat.

“There is truth to the fact that I’ve been encouraged, and I’m doing that (mulling a possible bid) right now,” Lee said.Lee, who has long floated the possibility of challenging state Chief Financial Officer Jimmy Patronis, said Monday he’s been contacted by a couple of congressmen about replacing Ross.

Lee said a statewide run remains his preference --- qualifying for statewide offices is June 18 to June 22 --- but he’s quickly learning the “family logistics” of serving in Congress.

Ross is one of four Florida Republicans exiting Congress on their own terms this year, joining Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, Tom Rooney and Ron DeSantis. DeSantis is running for governor.

Such retirements, along with a growing Hispanic population in Polk County, have helped Democrats believe that Ross’ district could be flipped as part of a “blue wave” in this year’s elections.“

The Florida Democratic Party is operating under the premise that no seat is safe in 2018,” said party spokeswoman Caroline Rowland. “We were already planning to invest in get-out-the-vote programs to support Democrats in rural counties like Lake and Polk County and Congressman Ross' retirement gives us even more reason to double down on our efforts in the district to support candidates who stand up for Democratic core values.

”The district had more registered Democrats --- 170,656 --- than Republicans --- 169,403 --- in the 2016 general election, according to the state Division of Elections. The district also had 119,338 unaffiliated voters and another 10,948 listed with the Independent Party at the time.However, Trump won the district with 53 percent of the vote, according to the Cook Political Report. Democrat Hillary Clinton received 43 percent.

Ross, a former state House member who rode into Congress on a tea party wave in 2010, won his first congressional contest by 7 percentage points, garnering about 15,000 more votes than Democrat Lori Edwards. He went unopposed in 2012 before winning by nearly 44,000 votes in 2014 and more than 47,500 votes in 2016.

In announcing their candidacies this week, Combee and Spano joined Ed Shoemaker, a Polk County Republican Party leader, and Loretta “Leah Lax” Miller, a Clermont Republican, who have opened campaign accounts with the Federal Elections Commission.

On the Democratic side, seven candidates have opened accounts --- Andrew Learned of Valrico, James Gregory Pilkington of Indian Lake Estates, Phil Hornback of Ruskin, Cameron Magnuson of Brandon, Raymond Pena of Lakeland, Jeffery Rabinowitz of Clermont and Greg Williams of Lakeland.

Learned, a U.S. Navy veteran, started the current quarter with $38,766 on hand, after raising $122,996 over the past year. None of the other candidates listed on the federal website started the quarter with more than $10,000 in the bank.