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Scott Franklin, Alan Cohn clash in traditionally red District 15

The Ledger, Lakeland, Fla. — Gary White The Ledger, Lakeland, Fla.

Oct. 18-- Oct. 18--LAKELAND -- It is certain that the U.S. House of Representatives will have a new member in January representing Florida's District 15.

The question is whether Republicans will maintain control of the seat. The district that contains Lakeland, though it has changed numbers and boundaries, has been held by a Republican since the 1980s.

Lakeland resident Scott Franklin, who ousted incumbent Ross Spano of Dover in the Republican primary, seeks to continue that dominance. Alan Cohn of Tampa, the winner in a three-person Democratic primary, hopes to turn the district blue.

The District 15 race has attracted national attention, reflecting Florida's status as a battleground state and the Interstate 4 corridor as crucial to the presidential election. Cohn and Franklin have drawn active support from their national party organizations, bringing more money and political operatives into the campaign.

Franklin, a Lakeland city commissioner, even has the backing of a political committee, Wingman PAC, originally created to help him beat Spano and continuing to support him in the general election.

District 15 covers northern Polk County -- including Lakeland, Polk City and a slice of the Four Corners area -- along with eastern Hillsborough County and southern Lake County.

Cohn, 57, a graduate of Hofstra University, is a former TV news reporter and anchor, most recently for a station in Tampa, and he has emphasized that background in the campaign. He points to investigations that revealed the use of faulty parts on military helicopters made by a defense contractor and a bribery scandal involving a Hillsborough County commissioner.

"I have been asking tough questions my entire career, and I am going to put those skills as an investigative journalist to work in the United States Congress," Cohn said.

Franklin, 55, is a graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy and spent 26 years in the Navy. In campaign ads, he has emphasized his background as a military pilot, including participation in combat operations in the Persian Gulf, Bosnia and Kosovo.

Franklin is the former CEO of Lanier Upshaw, a Lakeland insurance company acquired in January by BRP Group, a Tampa firm that now employs him as a managing partner.

Plenty of contrasts

Both candidates have emphasized their differences during the campaign.

"It's really very simple," Cohn said. "I am a middle-class guy, and I'm running against a multimillionaire who wants to end Social Security as we know it and gamble it in the stock market, and I don't think families in this congressional district are going to go for that."

Cohn cited a statement Franklin made at a Plant City forum suggesting Americans should be able to invest money that would otherwise go into the Social Security fund. Franklin campaign spokeswoman Amanda Bevis rejected that characterization, saying the Republican sees ways to improve Social Security and Medicare but is dedicated to protecting the programs.

In a recent interview with Fox News, Franklin suggested that the eligibility age for Social Security could be raised.

Franklin said he takes offense at Cohn's depiction of him as a rich elitist. He also criticizes Cohn for living a few miles outside the district's western boundary.

"He's never lived a single day of his life in this district, never worked a single day of his life in this district, and if you look at the money he's raised -- and he's bragging about all this money he's getting -- virtually none of it is coming from District 15," Franklin said. "To me, he's the classic carpetbagger outsider who wants to come in and tell us how we need to do things, and I think he's totally out of touch."

Cohn said his home was in the district that included Lakeland before boundaries were redrawn following the 2010 census. He said his reporting work and family activities regularly bring him into the district's current confines.

"(Wife) Patty and I have been part of the fiber of the 15th congressional district every day and every weekend, where you could find us on ball fields from Lakeland to Plant City to Riverview to even Clermont," he said.

Cohn said he has received more campaign contributions from residents of the district than Franklin has, and he alluded to his opponent's ability to loan his own campaign $350,000 in the Republican primary.

"Forgive me, I am not a multimillionaire who can fund his own campaign," Cohn said. "I'm a middle-class American, something obviously he is out of touch with."

COVID and masks

On the issues, both candidates list the COVID-19 pandemic as a dominant concern in this year's election. Franklin said he is focused on reviving an economy hobbled by measures government officials were forced to take to slow the spread of the virus.

"I think we saw the hard way the negative impacts of total shutdowns; we just can't go there," Franklin said. "It's not to say that COVID isn't a real threat, and we have to honor that, but at the same time it's a matter of protecting lives and livelihoods because if we destroy people's livelihoods, that has an impact on overall health as well."

Franklin voted against a mask mandate in Lakeland and then voted against its extension. He said he was troubled by the number of exemptions in the order and the city's lack of enforcement power.

Asked during a recent interview with Fox News if he thought masks help stop the spread of COVID-19, Franklin said, "I honestly don't know."

Describing the wearing of masks as a matter of personal responsibility, Franklin said he wears one in situations when distancing isn't possible. But the Cohn campaign recently drew attention to photos posted from a Franklin campaign event in Plant City, in which the Republican is seen in close proximity to others without a mask on.

"This is a matter of patriotism," Cohn said. "We have a lot of personal freedoms in this country. We do not have the right to endanger the lives of others, and we are seeing that now today. I come from this incredible perspective of actually believing in science, and the scientists say the best way to prevent the spread of COVID is to wear a mask."

The ongoing pandemic has elevated the importance of health care as a campaign issue. Cohn said he favors improving the Affordable Care Act, commonly called "Obamacare," by adding a public option, a government-supported program available for those who can't otherwise afford coverage.

He also suggested that Congress should push insurance companies to lower deductibles, which can lead to bankruptcies after a medical catastrophe even if the patient has coverage.

Cohn said he doesn't support a switch to Medicare for all, an approach pushed by Sen. Bernie Sanders and some Democrats that would eliminate private health insurance. He criticized Franklin for joining President Donald Trump and most other Republicans in seeking to eliminate the ACA.

"We've been waiting for -- what is it, over a decade now? -- for a (Republican replacement) plan," Cohn said. "By December, we may have a situation where this administration, backed by Scott Franklin, will have done away with the Affordable Care Act, leaving millions of Americans uninsured, including Americans with pre-existing conditions. That is the reality that they are pushing for."

Franklin says the ACA has failed to deliver on its promises and should be repealed, but he said he's confident any plan Republicans put forth will include guaranteed coverage for Americans with prior health conditions.

"I think health care is obviously a system that needs a lot of help," Franklin said. "I've worked in that a lot with employee benefits, and I know how hard it is, both as a business owner and as someone trying to help businesses get insurance for their employees, the challenges that we face. But I just don't think a government takeover of the program is the way we need to go. I think we need more free-market solutions."

As an example, he said multiple businesses should be able to combine employee pools to get better insurance rates.

Differing on climate

Like many Democrats, Cohn describes climate change as an urgent challenge facing the country. He said he would support plans proposed by Democrats in the House to set firm deadlines for reaching net-zero carbon emissions.

"In case anybody was unaware, climate change will devastate our local economy, will destroy our agriculture and the world," Cohn said. "It's an existential threat to our way of life, and others may not give a damn about it, but we do."

Franklin said the climate seems to be changing, but he said he isn't convinced human activity is the driving factor. He said that "environmental alarmism" has led to a push for policies that could do more harm than good.

"I don't buy into that, and I think those sort of scare tactics only hurt our efforts to find good solutions," he said. "But I do think there are a lot of things we can do and work on, but it can't be a winner-take-all or loser-take-all proposition."

During an interview, Franklin often sought to connect Cohn's campaign to the positions of Joe Biden, the Democratic candidate for president. He said the Democrats will raise taxes if Biden is elected, though the former vice president has said his proposal would not yield increased taxes for anyone making less than $400,000 a year.

Cohn said he would seek tax relief for the working poor and middle class and alleged that Franklin and Republicans would focus on cutting taxes for corporations.

Franklin lists "Advancing President Trump's agenda" as one of seven priorities on his campaign website. He mentioned the need to finish construction of a wall along the Mexican border.

Franklin said he opposes any path to citizenship or permanent legal status for those living in the country without permission.

Cohn's campaign said he supports comprehensive immigration reform and securing the southern border.

Though Franklin has closely aligned himself with Trump -- who name-checked the candidate at a recent rally in Sanford -- he could be elected and join Congress just as Trump is leaving office, if the president loses to Biden. Franklin said he would be willing to adjust to that reality.

"Obviously, going in I knew that there's a very real chance of that, which is why I think my experience with the military will help me out in that case," he said. "I've been accustomed to working on teams with people from all different ideas and backgrounds and persuasions and finding a way to get the job done."

Focusing on faith

Franklin also promises on his campaign site to "stand up for Christian values" and describes himself as "pro-life." He said that doesn't mean he would impose his interpretation of Christianity on others, noting that he has Jewish and Muslim friends.

"I believe in Christian values," he said. "Now, there are also a lot of values that other religions around the world uphold that intersect with Christian values. If I'm elected, I would represent all the people in District 15, regardless of their political party, race, color, creed, religion."

Cohn says on his campaign website that he would work to protect the right to an abortion, repeal a rule that blocks federal funds for abortion services and promote comprehensive sex education programs.

Cohn said his experience as host of a political talk show in Tampa showed that he can engage with people of varying political views.

"It was lively and it was impassioned, but at the end of the day I was always able to earn the respect of both sides because of my inherent allegiance to fairness, and that's what people want," Cohn said. "Right now, people are tired of the chaos, and for the last four years I've been able to bring all sides together to debate really contentious issues but in a way that was productive."

Despite the history of Republican dominance, Cohn notes that the party has only a slight edge in voter registrations in District 15, which Spano carried by six percentage points in 2018. Cohn's campaign recently issued the results of an internal poll that showed a statistical dead heat in the race.

The Cook Partisan Voter Index in 2017 rated the district as tilting six points more Republican than the national average in previous presidential races and ranks it as "lean Republican" for this election, as do two other organizations.

Cohn had a slight lead in campaign contributions as of the most recent report from the Federal Elections Commission. He reported contributions of nearly $589,000 through the end of June, all but $32,000 from individual contributions.

Cohn has an advantage in fundraising over Franklin, who only entered the Republican primary in March. Cohn has reported nearly $1.6 million in total contributions, with more than $1 million coming in July through September. His campaign said that was by far the most a candidate in District 15 had ever received in one quarter.

Federal Election Commission records showed Cohn with $412,000 in cash on hand as of Sept. 30.

Franklin reported more than $705,000 in contributions, including $400,000 in loans to himself. FEC records showed he had $282,000 in cash on hand as of Sept. 30.

Wingman PAC, the committee created to support Franklin's candidacy, reported more than $247,000 in contributions through the end of September. That figure included infusions of $70,000 from Barney Barnett of Lakeland, $58,000 from Jack Harrell Jr., $15,000 from Wesley Barnett (Barney's son) and $12,500 from Wesley Beck.

The committee also received $75,000 from the Friends of Matt Gaetz Committee. Gaetz, a U.S. House member from Fort Walton Beach, was the only congressional Republican to endorse Franklin in his primary challenge against Spano.

Cohn has gained endorsements from former President Barack Obama and Biden and former Florida Governor and Senator Bob Graham. He has also received the backing of more than two dozen progressive and labor organizations, including the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, End Citizens United and the Sierra Club.

Franklin has gained public support from Trump, Gaetz and House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-California. He also has endorsements from conservative, business, veteran and agriculture organizations, including the Florida Farm Bureau, Americans for Prosperity and the Guardian Fund.

Gary White can be reached at gary.white@theledger.com or 863-802-7518. Follow on Twitter @garywhite13.

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