U.S. congressman facing campaign finance probe ousted in Florida primary battle

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Freshman U.S. Representative Ross Spano was ousted by a challenger in the Florida Republican primary Tuesday amid a federal investigation into campaign finance violations from two years ago.

In a statement, Spano conceded defeat to Scott Franklin, a businessman and commissioner from the city of Lakeland. Spano has acknowledged mistakes with respect to campaign loans in 2018 but says they were unintentional.

“I’d like to thank the voters for giving me the honor and privilege of serving them in Congress for the last two years,” Spano said in the statement emailed by his campaign manager. “I’m proud of what we were able to accomplish the last two years and all the constituents that we were able to help.”

Spano trailed Franklin by 51.3% to 48.7%, according to preliminary results from Florida’s secretary of state. Both men are conservative Republicans.

Spano becomes the eighth member of Congress to lose his seat in a primary this year, joining four other Republicans and three Democrats.

Franklin, 55, a former Navy pilot, ran campaign ads highlighting the Justice Department’s investigation into Spano’s 2018 campaign.

Florida’s 15th District, which stretches east of Tampa, has been represented by a Republican for 25 years, and Spano won it by 6 points two years ago. But Democrats have named it as one of their top two targets in Florida for November. Former television news anchor Alan Cohn was leading in the district’s Democratic primary.

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Non-partisan election analysts say it maintains a Republican lean.

Florida, Wyoming and Alaska all held primaries on Tuesday for seats in Congress. The outcomes will set the stage for elections in November to determine the balance of power in Washington, where the House of Representatives has a Democratic majority and the Senate is Republican-run.

The mayor of Miami-Dade County, Carlos Gimenez, won the Republican primary in Florida’s 26th Congressional District, which Republicans hope to snatch back from Democrats in November.

Democratic Representative Debbie Mucarsel-Powell, an immigrant from Ecuador, flipped the seat two years ago.

Gimenez, who is Cuban-born, was endorsed by President Donald Trump, even though Gimenez had said in 2016 that he would vote for Democrat Hillary Clinton. The Cook Political Report labels the 26th District a “toss-up” on Nov. 3.

In Florida’s 23rd Congressional District, Democratic Representative Debbie Wasserman Schultz easily fended off her third primary challenge in as many elections, defeating progressive community activist Jen Perelman.

Despite the federal campaign finance investigation that was disclosed last year, Spano had the support of House Republican Leader Kevin McCarthy and others in the Republican leadership.

But last week, another Florida Republican, Representative Matt Gaetz, warned the party against nominating Spano with the campaign finance probe going on.

“Nancy Pelosi and the Democrats are going to savage Ross Spano,” Gaetz, an ally of President Donald Trump, told callers in a tele-town hall, according to the Tampa Bay Times. “He’s a drag. He’s a drain. He won’t help the president get re-elected.”

In Florida’s 21st Congressional District, home to Trump’s Mar-a-Lago club, far-right activist Laura Loomer was leading in the Republican primary. But whoever wins is likely to face an uphill fight against Democratic Representative Lois Frankel in November.

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