There are few things in life more predictable than an incumbent member of Congress being re-elected, but unlike most of his colleagues in Florida’s GOP congressional delegation, Ross Spano is really having to earn it this year.

What You Need To Know

  • Ross Spano faces primary challenge from Lakeland City Commissioner Scott Franklin

  • Spano says he self-reported campaign contribution violation, says scruitny politically motivated

  • Franklin's first time running for office was winning Lakeland seat

  • More Election 2020 headlines

The campaign finance issues that emerged just before he defeated Democrat Kristen Carlson by six percentage points in Florida’s 15th Congressional District (which encompasses parts of eastern Hillsborough, Polk and Lee counties) in 2018 made him an early 2020 target for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee – but Spano must first survive an intraparty challenge from Lakeland City Commissioner Scott Franklin in next week’s Republican Party primary.

“If we’re going to drain the swamp and rid ourselves of corruption, it has to start right here at home,” Franklin tells Spectrum Bay News 9. 

Franklin is referring to what Spano calls simply a “mistake” during his initial run for the seat two years ago. That’s when the Dover Republican borrowed tens of thousands of dollars from two friends that he then put into his campaign coffers – a violation of federal campaign contribution limits, earning him an ongoing investigation from the U.S. Department of Justice.

In an interview with Spectrum Bay News 9, Spano again reiterated that once he learned of his “error,” he immediately self-reported it to the Federal Election Commission, and says that everything since then that everything that has come his way from the media and his Republican and Democratic opponents has been politically motivated.

“Similar to what happened to President Trump. Similar to what has happened to General Flynn, and many others who have supported the president,” he says.

Franklin, 55, is a former Naval Aviator who has since led a successful insurance agency in Lakeland. He had never run for political office before winning a seat on the Lakeland City Commission two years ago. He says he never would have challenged a sitting congressional incumbent were it not for Spano’s financial issues. 

But the sobering reality he’s learned while campaigning this summer is that while the political classes may be obsessed about Spano’s campaign finance problems, many voters aren’t aware of them at all.

“Typically not,” he says when asked how informed the public is on that subject, adding that it’s been his “mission” to bring them up to date on those details. 

Franklin is betting on himself in the race, having put $350,000 of his own money into his campaign. Noting the campaign contributions his opponent has received from political committees, he says that the system is “stacked” in favor of incumbents.

“I knew that going in,” he says. “I thought I did. I’ve really seen it first-hand now.”

Franklin notes that Spano has spent more than $100,000 on attorney fees, “which I think is just despicable. But people don’t know that. That’s just the kind of behavior we cannot tolerate anymore.”

Spano says he has to spend that money to defend himself, “even if these investigations are politically motivated.”

The recent high-profile endorsements from Polk County Sheriff Grady Judd and Pensacola area Congressman Matt Gaetz have buoyed Franklin’s campaign, though Spano counters with an impressive list of his own supporters, which include House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, GOP House Whip Steve Scalise, GOP Conference Chair Liz Cheney, U.S. Senator Marco Rubio, and 11 of the state’s 14 Republican members of Congress.

When it comes down to the issues, the two Republicans are very much on the same page. They both decry the $600 federal checks that stopped being distributed at the end of July. Both men say they have spoken with small business owners who said those weekly checks worked as a disincentive for employees to come back to work.

Both are self-described deficit hawks, but don’t have much to say about how much the federal debt and deficit has gone up under President Trump’s leadership even before the novel coronavirus began laying waste to the U.S. economy.

And they both fear what a Democratic takeover of Washington might mean for the country. Like some of the Republicans running in the Pinellas County District 13 race this summer, Franklin cites Democrats like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and her “Squad” cohorts.

“I think we’re in a fundamental shift here whether we want a democracy and a republic, or if we want to go down the path of socialism,” Franklin says. “Is it capitalism or socialism? And I feel that the principals of capitalism and free markets have made our country what it has been for these last 240 years or so, and I just don’t want to see that change.”

“Our liberties will continue to be constrained and limited,” Spano says when asked his thoughts if Joe Biden and the Democrats win in November. “I think our businesses and our economy will go down. I think we’ll spend more money than we already have spent. I think around the world we’ll have less influence. I think trade deals with other countries will suffer, and I the American people will ultimately suffer as a result.”

In a district that Donald Trump won by 10 percentage points in 2016, another criticism tossed at both men is insufficient fealty to the president – a bit of a stretch in that Spano has voted with Trump 92 percent of the time.

Franklin similarly hews extremely close to the Trump agenda, and dismisses criticism for a 2009 financial contribution to Democrat Alex Sink when she ran for governor of Florida as a “pathetic Hail-Mary.”

As the campaign fades into the final days, Franklin says he’s more convinced than ever that he’s the last, best hope to keep the longtime Republican seat in conservative hands.

“If we can come into this primary, and knock off a sitting incumbent filing in the middle of March, then it’s clear – it should be clear, that the Democrats would have taken this seat in November. That’s not going to happen.”

Spano fires back.

“That’s ridiculous,” he says, citing his long list of endorsements.

“If they didn’t think that I had the best chance of winning this seat, you can be guaranteed sure that they would not have endorsed me,” he says.

If Spano survives his GOP challenge from Franklin, he’s likely to face for more incoming out-of-state money and campaign attacks against him from Democrat aligned groups who would love nothing more than to knock him off in November.  

Who that Democrat will be will also be decided next week in the primary between Adam Hattersley, Alan Cohn and Jesse Philippe.