TALLAHASSEE, Fla. — Several Florida conservatives who question President Joe Biden’s 2020 victory could be heading to Congress in November, thanks to the state’s contentious redistricting process muscled through the Legislature by Gov. Ron DeSantis.
The Republicans who have a shot at winning their Aug. 23 primaries include a Trump-backed candidate who alleged her rivals were plotting to kill her, a state legislator who blasted GOP leaders in the Florida House as “RINOs,” and a state senator who sponsored legislation banning abortions after 15 weeks of pregnancy and transgender women and girls from competing in women’s sports.
This looming influx of new Republicans are coming courtesy of a new congressional map drawn up by DeSantis’ staff that dismantled a seat held by Rep. Al Lawson, a Black Democrat. Florida picked up an extra seat this year due to population growth and the governor pushed through a new map that is expected to help the GOP nationally win back the House. Republicans hold a 16-11 edge over Democrats in Florida’s congressional delegation, but that margin is expected to grow to 20-8 after the November elections. In many of the seats, the primary will decide the winner.
Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-Fla.), a close ally of former President Donald Trump, has endorsed two of the MAGA-style Republicans running for Congress, state Rep. Anthony Sabatini (R-Howey-in-the-Hills) and Air Force vet Anna Paulina Luna, saying they “are the backup I need for the America First agenda to be successful in Congress.”
The full effects of redistricting won’t be known until after the November midterms, but Florida is poised to send at least six new members to Congress this year, including four running in either solid or Republican-leaning districts that were remade as part of a redistricting overhaul. These Republicans are much more closely aligned with Trump than House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, who could be the next speaker if the GOP retakes the chamber.
DeSantis’ redistricting push all but guarantees Florida’s congressional delegation will be more Republican-leaning for years, meaning the once reliable swing state will continue to trend further red.
Democrats have complained loudly about the new redistricting map but their legal challenges to block the changes ahead of this year’s elections did not succeed, although the litigation is ongoing.
“This is exactly what DeSantis wanted to accomplish with his extreme and racist gerrymander: sending dangerous far-right candidates to Congress who will push Republicans’ radical agenda,” said Nebeyatt Betre, a spokesperson for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.
One of the bitterest primaries has been the battle for Florida’s 7th Congressional District, the Central Florida seat being vacated by Democratic Rep. Stephanie Murphy. The seat is expected to flip due to redistricting and it’s triggered a fierce primary campaign between a large field of eight candidates, including Sabatini, a conservative member of the Legislature who called for an audit of Florida’s 2020 election results and last year said “we don’t know if [Biden’s] really president.”
Sabatini also had made it clear that “I will not be voting for Kevin McCarthy” for speaker if Republicans retake the House.
Cory Mills, a military veteran and defense contractor, is also competing for the seat. Mills took part in a “Stop the Steal” rally shortly after the November 2020 elections and told the Orlando Sentinel he doesn’t view Biden as a legitimate president. Mills’ company also sold tear gas that was used against Black Lives Matters demonstrators, a fact he’s leaned into with a digital ad where he vowed: “If the media wants to shed some real tears I can help them out with that.”
Luna, a former Air Force veteran who once worked for Charlie Kirk’s Turning Point USA, is the frontrunner for Florida’s 13th Congressional District, a Pinellas County seat being vacated by Rep. Charlie Crist (D-Fla.), who is running for governor. Crist beat Luna in 2020, but the district has grown more Republican due to redistricting. Trump has also endorsed her.
In the summer of 2021, Luna contended that a handful of her political rivals were engaged in a conspiracy to kill her. In an only-in-Florida moment, Kevin Hayslett, an attorney who represented one of those rivals that Luna sought to get a stalking injunction against, is running for the seat. Hayslett won the endorsement of key Pinellas County Republicans such as House Speaker Chris Sprowls and Pinellas County Sheriff Bob Gualtieri.
Recent polls show Luna with a solid lead but Hayslett has slammed Luna over her past support for former President Barack Obama — which had been documented in her initial 2020 race — and has circulated a clip of an old interview where she said she supported Obama’s immigration policies. This past week Club for Growth Action either bought or reserved $2 million in ads to boost Luna.
Two other open seats have brought in more traditional Republican candidates.
State Sen. Aaron Bean, who sponsored immigration legislation pushed by DeSantis that penalizes companies that transport undocumented minors to states across the country, is expected to win of the primary for Florida’s 4th Congressional District in northeast Florida. Bean has said he will work with McCarthy if elected.
His rival in the primary, Erick Aguilar, was banned from WinRed, a fundraising platform popular with Republicans, after his campaign sent out misleading emails that suggested donations were going to Trump and DeSantis.
And five Republicans are running for Florida’s 15th Congressional District, including DeSantis’ former secretary of state, Laurel Lee, and state Sen. Kelli Stargel (R-Lakeland), who was chair of the powerful state Senate Appropriations Committee and sponsored Florida’s new abortion law and its ban on transgender female athletes from competing in women’s sports.
Some incumbent Republicans are also facing challenges from MAGA-style conservatives. Rep. Daniel Webster (R-Fla.), is facing a primary from Laura Loomer, the far-right activist who has been endorsed by Trump confidant Roger Stone and Michael Flynn, Trump’s former national security adviser who was suspended from Twitter last year for spreading QAnon-related content.
Loomer, who according to the most recent campaign reports, outraised Webster, has lambasted Webster for missing votes, including Trump’s second impeachment and suggested he isn’t a true conservative.
Webster, who voted against certifying the votes from Arizona and Pennsylvania, has rejected Loomer’s criticisms.
“If someone has an issue with my vote record, then with all due respect they aren’t a conservative who believes in limited government, individual freedom, personal responsibility, empowering the family and low taxes,” Webster said in a statement.