In many ways, the Republican battle for Florida’s 7th Congressional District’s open seat has boiled down to three relative newcomers to the area who’ve established robust campaigns, plus several more local candidates hoping to stop them with lower-level campaigns.
The eight Republicans all may be viable enough to have found bases that could split the Central Florida district’s Republican voters into small pieces. So — with no Democratic candidates with any viable bases — the next Representative from CD 7 could earn a trip to Capitol Hill by pulling just 20-25% of the vote in Tuesday’s Republican Primary Election.
When incumbent Democratic U.S. Rep. Stephanie Murphy — a centrist widely supported by business and business groups — announced last December that she would not seek another term, the purple district became ripe for a red flip.
When the Legislature redrew the Seminole County-based CD 7 to trade liberal parts of Orange County for conservative parts of Volusia County, it became a red-purple district.
That opened lanes for Christian missionary Brady Duke, who moved into CD 7 three years ago, veteran and conservative TV darling Cory Mills, a former Virginia resident who rented an apartment in Central Florida a couple years ago, and lone-wolf conservative state Rep. Anthony Sabatini, who still lists a Lake County address.
After those paths were blazed, a crowd of more local, more establishment Republicans jumped in, though perhaps too late.
And when the Democrats wound up with four little-known candidates, all without any significant campaign prowess, Tuesday’s Republican Primary Election began looking like decision time for the district.
Sabatini’s shoot-at-anyone — except former President Donald Trump — style of rhetoric in the Legislature made him plenty of enemies in the GOP establishment.
It also made him attractive to the Republican Party’s angry voters’ wing. He has mixed his provocative rhetoric with a campaign strategy invested heavily in canvassing, to build a base that could give the state Legislature’s least-popular lawmaker a path into Congress.
Mills has largely self-funded a campaign that featured a long-running, widely seen TV commercial of him wearing combat gear and toting a rifle, and sounding as if he’s having fun scaring liberals and the media. His America First platform, his personal financial ability to give his campaign big spending power, and his frequent appearances on conservative talk shows has provided him with high visibility.
Duke’s campaign caught many observers off-guard by putting together an impressive, national, social conservatives fundraising operation that has drawn the kind of money most congressional incumbents would envy, with close to $2 million heading into the Primary.
He’s also put together the kind of social conservatism platform that has historically played well with Seminole and Volusia counties’ large fundamentalist Christian populations. Still, Duke has yet to publicly demonstrate he has appealed to the 20% threshold in polling that could make him a front-runner.
Behind them have come former DeBary City Commissioner Erika Benfield, whose campaign has tried to appeal to Hispanic and women voters; former Orange County Commissioner Ted Edwards, who was once a leader of Central Florida’s conservatives; Rusty Roberts, who was longtime right-hand-man to the district’s last Republican Congressman, former U.S. Rep. John Mica; Al Santos, a retired Army colonel who is trying to challenge Mills’ position as the tough, conservative Army veteran type; and Sanford businessman Scott Sturgill, who has deep ties to the Seminole County business community.
The Democratic field features Florida Democratic Party Vice Chair Karen Green, who declined to defend herself against charges raised by another candidate that she had falsified parts of her resume; Aleck Pastrana; businesswoman Tatiana Fernandez; and former congressional candidate Al Krulick, who raised the challenges to Green’s resume.
The winners of the respective Primaries will face off in November’s General Election.