At Republican conference, Tampa Bay candidates vie to show they’re red enough

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HOLLYWOOD, FL — Tampa Bay’s Republican congressional candidates tried Saturday to prove their conservative credentials to Florida’s powerful, high-profile governor and an assemblage of Florida conservative politicians, donors and others.

Candidates hoping to represent Florida in the U.S. House promised their allegiance to term limits, to state’s rights, to choice in education. They voiced their displeasure with Anthony Fauci, praised U.S. Supreme Court Justices Clarence Thomas and Amy Coney Barrett and vowed support for Israel. They stressed the need for a secure border and fiscal conservatism — for some candidates, as Gov. Ron DeSantis looked on and asked them questions.

Saturday’s Republican Party of Florida’s Sunshine Summit conference at the Seminole Hard Rock Hotel and Casino included debates for candidates in four congressional races, including two contested seats in Tampa Bay that both lean red: Pinellas County’s 13th Congressional District seat and the 15th District seat that represents northeast Hillsborough, southeast Pasco and parts of Polk County.

The debates were not streamed live and most media outlets were barred from attending. (The Tampa Bay Times requested, and was granted, credentials to attend.)

Before the debates began, DeSantis said he didn’t want “legacy media” involved asking “gotcha questions” that only helped Democrats. He said that this year, Florida Republicans had the chance to pick up four congressional seats, from 16 to 20 — aided by the maps his office drafted.

The theme of the debates was clear — figuring out how much the candidates followed DeSantis’ and former President Donald Trump’s visions for the Republican Party.

DeSantis and Marc Levin, a conservative commentator from Fox News, hosted the debate for the 15th District.

All five of Florida’s 15th Congressional District Republican candidates participated, which required either $100,000 raised or 5% support in a poll to qualify.

Former Secretary of State Laurel Lee, state Sen. Kelli Stargel, state Rep. Jackie Toledo, former U.S. Navy Captain Kevin John McGovern and former U.S. Navy Cmdr. Demetries Grimes spent about an hour largely agreeing on the questions they were asked while trying to emphasize their personal and professional backgrounds.

Levin pressed candidates on their party credentials, asking one of them how they could know she wouldn’t be “the next Liz Cheney.” He asked candidates if they would oust Alejandro Mayorkas, the U.S. Secretary of Homeland Security, for his handling of the border. And he asked candidates how fiscally conservative they were, referencing DeSantis’ recent veto of $3 billion from Florida’s budget.

DeSantis doubled down on the question, asking what the candidates would do if given a stuffed budget or bill to sign that they had seen only 24 hours prior. He chimed in less frequently than Levin, but did ask the candidates who they thought the best justice on the Supreme Court was, if they supported term limits and what they would do if Fauci were still in office.

Levin had a back-and-forth with Grimes, who previously ran as a Democrat in Miami-Dade County, with Levin asking Grimes who he voted for in 2018 (Grimes said DeSantis) and about some of his previous positions on the National Rifle Association and other issues. Grimes said he’s always been conservative and pointed out the number of new Republicans in the state.

“Are we saying they’re not welcome?” Grimes said.

Perhaps the only policy position where the 15th District candidates were not in agreement was over whether nonmilitary personnel should be deployed to Ukraine. Lee was the sole candidate to oppose such intervention.

In the debate for Florida’s 13th District, only three of the five running Republicans qualified: Republican strategist Amanda Makki, conservative commentator Anna Paulina Luna and private criminal defense attorney Kevin Hayslett. Business owner Christine Quinn and law student Moneer Kheireddine did not meet the Republican Party’s parameters.

DeSantis was not present at this debate — it was moderated by conservative commentators from the Washington Free Beacon and Breitbart — but Makki mentioned the governor a few times, including applauding his push for term limits when he was in Congress and for his work on education in Tallahassee.

The candidates were also asked the question of whether they’d support Trump or DeSantis in 2024. Makki went first, saying “DeSantis is the future of our party.” Luna, who has been endorsed by Trump, said she’d support a Trump-DeSantis ticket. Hayslett joked he would like a minotaur-esque half-DeSantis-half-Trump combination, but he would support a Trump-DeSantis ticket or vice versa.

Asked about their priorities, Luna talked about energy independence, big technology and veteran suicide. Makki focused on kitchen-table issues, the southern border and the “indoctrination of our children,” while Hayslett talked about the border, inflation and election integrity.

Vote-by-mail ballots are already being sent to voters across the state ahead of the Aug. 23 primary election, and early voting begins in a few weeks.