A political newcomer with a legendary military career is vying to unseat an incumbent Tampa Bay Democrat with deep ties to the region in one of the most competitive Senate races in the state.
A steady stream of attack announcements flooded the airwaves and mailboxes during 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 incumbent Republican Dana Young in a controversial 2018 contest that was also one of the Senate’s flagship races.
Collins, who served in the US Army Special Forces, has an extensive military resume that includes multiple deployments to war-torn regions like Iraq and Afghanistan. The Purple Heart veteran was wounded multiple times in battle, an injury later requiring the amputation of one of his legs.
Both candidates have unique factors working in their favor, according to William March, a longtime political journalist who is now a freelancer for outlets such as WUSF and the Tampa Bay Times.
“Her advantages (from Cruz) are that she’s very established and well-known locally. Plus, she’s a starter,” 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 makes extensive use of in his campaign,” said March, who lives in Tampa.
Collins is the director of programs for Operation BBQ Relief, a non-profit organization that delivers food to first responders and communities affected by natural disasters.
Senate candidates are divided on issues such as education and their positions on Governor Ron DeSantis’ leadership style.
“My biggest issue, which has been and will continue to be, is protecting (against) the privatization of private schools,” Cruz said in an interview with the News Service. “To secure against this initiative to dismantle public schools as we know them and (open) the door to corporate schools so that private entities can take advantage of them.”
Collins, meanwhile, said he has a “right-sized approach” to education.
“We all deserve the opportunity to have the best education possible,” Collins told the News Service, adding that he has two children in public schools. “I’m invested in making sure all kids have that bridge forward, whatever it is. Whether it’s going to trade schools after high school, college, (getting a) master’s degree. Everyone needs to take the right approach for them.
The Republican received a high-profile endorsement from DeSantis, which accompanied Collins’ announcement in June that he was entering the race for Senate District 14. Collins had originally asked to run for Congress in the area and then moved on to another race for Congress before finally deciding to face Cruz.
Collins hailed DeSantis’ leadership during the coronavirus pandemic as exemplifying how the governor leads.
“If you look at what we’ve done (in Florida), the tough decisions we’ve made during COVID, to open up our state, to keep our economy open and to keep business going, I think we’ve done an incredible job. . I think (DeSantis) is strong, he’s brave and he has the audacity to do what he believes is fundamentally right for our state,” Collins said.
But Cruz criticized the governor, who lobbied to elect his favorite candidates to the Legislative Assembly, and suggested he had too much control over a separate branch of government.
“When you have a governor who puts his apostles in the House and … in the Senate, so he can run both houses with enough votes, then we lose our democracy as we know it,” Cruz said.
Cruz also derided DeSantis’ alleged White House ambitions.
“We’re going to have to pick up the pieces of this when this is over and our governor runs for president,” Cruz said.
The once-a-decade redistricting process in the Legislative Assembly hasn’t brought big changes to the political makeup of what Cruz – who beat 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 ticks toward the general election, according to veteran political analyst Susan MacManus.
“The district, right now, is considered by many with disabilities to be one of the most competitive Senate districts, and there aren’t many of those in the state,” said Susan MacManus, professor of retired political scientist at the University of South Florida, said in a recent interview.
MacManus said Republicans are likely counting on the GOP’s traditionally higher turnout in the midterm elections to swing the Senate seat.
“For (Collins), even though he may be an outsider, I think part of Republican thinking is, typical midterms being a judgment on the president’s favor and his performance in office, that with (Joe) Biden still heavily underwater in Florida, that would give (Collins) a chance,” she said.
MacManus, however, suggested that Cruz still holds an advantage.
“Overall, she’s expected to win because she’s a starter 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 propelled him to victory,” MacManus said.
March, meanwhile, said Collins “definitely has a chance, there’s no doubt he has a chance.”
Cruz touted her record in the Legislative Assembly and her advocacy for the Tampa area as making her the best candidate for the district.
“One of their ads mentions that I was inefficient and didn’t pass bills, which is not true. I passed several bills while I was in the Senate,” said Cruz.
Collins presents himself as a new face in politics and a family-oriented candidate who seeks to unite people.
“I think you see our support structure growing, because people are ready for leadership that is focused on people, giving back to them, not politics. I am not a career politician. I am a retired Green Beret. I feed people in an association. I am husband and father. And that’s what people want in those seats,” he said.