POLK COUNTY, Fla. — Lakeland businessman Scott Franklin admits that he probably wouldn’t be challenging Ross Spano in the GOP primary for Florida’s 15th Congressional District later this summer if Spano wasn’t being investigated for alleged campaign finance violations.

“I supported congressman Spano in his general election,” Franklin said, referring to Spano’s victory over Democrat Kristen Carlson for the open seat after fellow Republican Dennis Ross opted not to run for reelection in 2018. “As a fellow conservative, I don’t harbor any disagreements with any votes that he’s taken. A lot does come down to the issues that are hanging over him.”

The Dept. of Justice announced last November that it was investigating Spano for the funds that he loaned his 2018 campaign for congress. Spano has admitted that “mistakes were made” with respect to those campaign loans, but has denied any wrongdoing. 

Franklin, 55, said it’s not up to him to decide whether what Spano did was right or wrong, “but the reality is that it is impacting his effectiveness in the seat right now.”

The District 15 seat has been a Republican stronghold for decades, where it was located predominantly in Polk County. Former Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam held the seat from 2000-2010, and Ross then held it for eight years until he stepped down in 2018.

Franklin served in the U.S. Navy for 26 years as a Naval Aviator and participated in combat operations in Bosnia and Kosovo. After 9/11, he was recalled to active duty with U.S. Central Command.  He’s been in the insurance business since leaving the Navy, and never seriously thought of running for office until 2018, when he ran and won a seat on the Lakeland City Commission. 

He says it was only after some friends of his “who are very interested” in politics in Polk County came to him in January that prompted him to seriously consider a run against Spano.

When asked if those friends included Putnam and/or Ross, Franklin demurred, neither denying or confirming, but simply saying that the two men were both “longtime friends,” but he’d rather not get too specific about whom he consulted with.

Franklin impressed political observers by announcing that he had raised more than $266,000 for the first quarter last week including $160,000 of his own money. (Spano has yet to release his fundraising for the first quarter as this story was published). But campaigning against an incumbent with the worst pandemic in the U.S. in over a century isn’t going to be easy, and Franklin admits that it might be rockier trying to raise funds during the second fiscal quarter which now runs through the end of June. 

“The last thing I want anyone to feel is that we’re insensitive to what’s going on out there,” he says, while also acknowledging the reality that qualifying dates for candidates running for federal office in Florida takes place next week.

A self-described fiscal conservative, Franklin says he understands the need for the big spending bills that Congress has appropriated to deal with the economic fallout from the coronavirus.

“I think we’ve got very significant decisions that are being made, and I don’t see this as a choice of economics or health. It’s both,” he says. “But at the same time, I think that we’re making economic decisions that are going to have lasting impacts. We’re doing things that are going to be tying the hands fiscally for our children and grandchildren.”

More than any major issue, Franklin says he hopes to change the tenor of the way that Washington works if he’s elected.

“The bitterness, the partisan fighting, the animosity. It just isn’t getting anything accomplished, and I think that’s reflected in the level of distrust and the low approval ratings people have in Congress,” he says. “Even in the middle of a national crisis like we have now, people can’t seem to put the politics aside.”

Franklin says that he hopes that his experience in the military will help. 

“As a veteran, we come to the table from every state, every zip code, every social economic group, yet we all have a common mission, and we have to come together to complete.”

On health care, he says that the country has to do better, without arguing for a specific remedy. 

“I do agree that pre-existing conditions need to be covered, no matter what we end up with,” he says.

In terms of lessons learned as fatalities continue to rise due to the virus in Florida, Franklin says that it’s obvious that the U.S. can’t be so reliant on foreign nations like China when it comes to the supply chain for medicines or other elements. 

Democrats are hopeful that they can flip the traditionally GOP seat in the fall.  Part of that equation is that the political demographics have become more favorable for them after the district was redrawn a few years ago and now a plurality of voters from eastern Hillsborough County. And the party breakdown is almost equally split between Republicans and Democrats at 35 percent, with independents making up the remaining 30 percent. 

Spano won the seat over Carlson in 2018 by six points. President Trump defeated Hillary Clinton by 10 points there in 2016. 

The Cook Political Report currently lists the CD-15 seat to “lean Republican,” but that’s with Spano as the GOP nominee in the fall.   

What was expected to be a high profile battle for the Democratic nomination for the seat is now on the backburner with the pandemic taking over everything. The leading candidates there are state Rep. Adam Hattersley and former television news reporter/anchor Alan Cohn.