Former Gov. Jeb Bush of Florida has not and will not endorse anyone in the District 24 face-off between Republican state Senate candidates Rachel Burgin and Tom Lee.
“He’s staying out of that primary,” said Jaryn Emhof, a spokesperson for Bush, one of the nation's most popular Republicans, whose endorsement could be seen as a major boost to any GOP candidate in a tight primary race.
“We communicated to both campaigns that we are not getting involved several weeks ago," Emhof said.
The Tampa Tribune had cited Bush’s backing in an editorial endorsing former Florida Senate President Lee earlier this month, much to the ire of state Rep. Burgin, R-56.
Bush’s office has since asked the paper to make a correction, Emhof said.
Governor Bush "endorsed me in 2006, when I ran [for state chief financial officer], but there was no endorsement in this race, and I never said there was,” Lee said in an interview with Brandon Patch on July 19.
Lee is running against Burgin in the Aug. 14 Republican primary, for the seat currently held by Sen. Ronda Storms, R-Brandon, who is running for Hillsborough County property appraiser. The primary winner will face Democrat Elizabeth Belcher in the fall for the right to represent Senate District 24, which includes Brandon, Riverview and Bloomingdale.
“Earlier in this race I reached out to Gov. Bush to discuss this campaign, and requested he remain neutral,” Bergin said in her Facebook post. “I felt District 24 voters should come to their own conclusions about who to vote for without flashy mailers and political ads featuring his likeness.”
The Bush endorsement controversy is just the latest imbroglio to engulf what is quickly becoming one of the most contentious primary battles in the state.
This week a flyer impugning Lee was mailed to homes in Eastern Hillsborough County, drawing a rebuke from state GOP leaders, according to the Tampa Bay Times. The flyer mentioned Lee’s marriage and pictured him alongside Hillsborough County Property Appraiser Rob Turner, the incumbent candidate embroiled in a sex scandal.
“This is dirtiest campaign I’ve ever been a part of in 20 years in public office,” said Lee, who noted that he has waged five political campaigns. “It’s dirtier than all five put together. The fact that they would even raise the circumstance of someone’s personal life . . . The truth is they have nothing positive to say about their own candidate so they have to resort to running me and my family down. It may be the only Hail Mary [pass] they have, but it doesn’t work. People know me too well in this community.”
Burgin, also in an interview with Brandon Patch on July 19, said she didn’t know about the contents of the flyer until it arrived in local mailboxes.
“I have some supporters in Tallahassee who are helping me but I didn’t know about the flyer," she said. "It is out now and it is what it is. It does raise questions that should be answered.”
With or without Bush, Lee has been racking up endorsements. On July 19, Sen. John Thrasher, R-St. Augustine, and Sen. Joe Negron, R-Stuart, both pledged to support Lee. Thrasher previously served as the speaker of the Florida House and the chairman of the Republican Party of Florida. Attorney General Pam Bondi, State Attorney Mark Ober as well as Hillsborough County commissioners Al Higginbotham and Sandy Murman have also come out in support of Lee.
“Clearly, I am not the establishment candidate,” Burgin said. “The establishment Republicans have endorsed against me but I have 150 people at the grassroots level working for me who have endorsed me.”
Party primaries are normally ho-hum affairs, where candidates face no opposition, saving their campaign funds for the fall elections.
Not so in District 24.
Both Lee and Burgin strongly fancy their chances in the fall election in the traditionally conservative District 24; in their eyes, whoever wins the primary will likely win Nov. 6.