Tampa voters will decide one of Florida's most competitive Senate races
A political newcomer with a storied military career is vying to unseat an incumbent Tampa Bay Democrat with deep ties to the region in one of the state’s most competitive Senate races.
A steady stream of attack ads have flooded airwaves and mailboxes in the closely watched contest between state Sen. Janet Cruz, D-Tampa, and Republican Jay Collins in the weeks leading up to the Nov. 8 election.
Cruz was first elected to the Senate in 2018 after spending eight years in the House, where she served as minority leader. Cruz, who was born in Tampa, defeated Republican incumbent Dana Young in a contentious 2018 contest that also was one of the Senate’s marquee races.
Collins, who served in the U.S. Army Special Forces, has a lengthy military resume that includes multiple deployments to war-torn regions such as Iraq and Afghanistan. The Purple Heart veteran was wounded several times in combat, with one injury later requiring amputation of one of his legs.
Both candidates have unique factors working in their favor, according to William March, a longtime political reporter who now freelances for outlets including WUSF and the Tampa Bay Times.
“Her (Cruz’s) advantages are that she’s very well established and well-known locally. Plus she’s an incumbent,” March told The News Service of Florida in a recent interview.
March also noted that the Senate district includes West Tampa, a “heavily Hispanic and generally Democratic-voting area,” which he called an advantage for Cruz.
Collins, meanwhile, has “a very strong personal story, which he's making heavy use of in his campaign,” said March, who lives in Tampa.
Collins is the chief programs officer for Operation BBQ Relief, a nonprofit that delivers food to first responders and communities affected by natural disasters.
The Senate candidates are divided on issues such as education and their stances on Gov. Ron DeSantis’ leadership style.
“My biggest issue, which has been and will continue to be, is to protect (against) the privatization of private schools,” Cruz said in an interview with the News Service. “To ensure against this initiative to dismantle public schools as we know it and (opening) the door for corporate schools so that private entities can profit off of it.”
Collins, meanwhile, said he has a “right-size approach” to education.
“We all deserve the opportunity for the best education possible,” Collins told the News Service, adding that he has two children in public schools. “I’m invested in making sure that all children have that bridge forward, whatever that may be. Whether it’s going to trade schools after high school, college, (getting a) master’s. Everybody has to take the right approach for them.”
The Republican received a high-profile endorsement from DeSantis, which accompanied Collins' June announcement that he was jumping into the race for Senate District 14. Collins initially had filed to run for Congress in the area and later switched to a different congressional race before ultimately deciding to take on Cruz.
Collins praised DeSantis’ leadership during the coronavirus pandemic as exemplifying how the governor leads.
“If you look at what we did (in Florida), the hard decisions we made during COVID, to open up our state, to keep our economy open and driving business forward, I think we did an amazing job. I think (DeSantis) is strong, he’s courageous, and he has the audacity to do what he believes is fundamentally appropriate for our state,” Collins said.
But Cruz criticized the governor, who has pushed to get his preferred candidates elected to the Legislature, and suggested that he has too much control over a separate branch of government.
“When you have a governor that’s putting his apostles into the House and … into the Senate, so that he can run both houses with enough votes, then we’re losing our democracy the way that we know it,” Cruz said.
Cruz also derided DeSantis’ purported White House ambitions.
“We are going to be left picking up the pieces for all of this when this ends and our governor is off to run for president,” Cruz said.
The Legislature’s once-a-decade redistricting process did not bring big changes to the political makeup of what Cruz — who defeated Young by 411 votes four years ago — called a “purple” seat.
While the district is Democratic-leaning, the Senate race is a barn burner as the clock winds down to the general election, according to veteran political analyst Susan MacManus.
“The district, right now, is regarded by a lot of handicappers as one of the most competitive Senate districts, and there are not a lot of them in the state,” said Susan MacManus, a retired University of South Florida political science professor, said in a recent interview.
MacManus said Republicans likely are counting on the GOP’s traditionally higher turnout in midterm elections to swing the Senate seat.
“For (Collins), even though he may be an underdog, I think part of the Republican thinking is, with the typical midterms being a judgment of the president’s favorability and his performance in office, that with (Joe) Biden still heavily underwater in Florida, it would give (Collins) a shot,” she said.
MacManus, however, suggested that Cruz still holds an edge.
“Big picture, the expectation is that she would prevail because she’s an incumbent and it’s a heavily urban area. The upset picture is that (Collins is) a new face and a veteran, and the president’s low approval ratings foisted him to victory,” MacManus said.
March, meanwhile, said that Collins "definitely has a chance, no question he’s got a chance.”
Cruz touted her record in the Legislature and advocacy for the Tampa area as making her the best fit for the district.
“One of their commercials mentions that I was ineffective and did not pass any bills, which is not true. I’ve passed several bills while I was in the Senate,” Cruz said.
Collins bills himself as a fresh face in politics and a family-oriented candidate who seeks to unite people.
“I think you see our support structure building up, because people are ready for leadership that’s focused on individuals, on giving back to them and not playing politics. I’m not a career politician. I’m a retired Green Beret. I feed people in a nonprofit. I’m a husband and father. And that’s what people want in these seats,” he said.