Combee said he was motivated more by a desire to help fulfill the political agenda of President Donald Trump than by concerns about continuing a 25-year run of congressional members from Polk County.

LAKELAND — When U.S. Rep. Dennis Ross ended his bid for re-election last week, it raised the prospect that Polk County might not have a member of Congress for the first time in decades.

Neil Combee of North Lakeland is determined to make sure that isn’t the case.

Combee, a former Polk County commissioner and Florida legislator, announced Tuesday that he will run as a Republican in Ross’ district. He said he was motivated more by a desire to help fulfill the political agenda of President Donald Trump than by concerns about continuing a 25-year run of congressional members from Polk County.

“People are looking at it that way, but I’m looking at it as a district, and I think when I’m in East Hillsborough County, Polk County or South Lake County, I’m home,” Combee said Tuesday. “That’s been my home my entire life. Obviously, (the seat) is important to Polk County. It’s also important to a lot of voters in Hillsborough and Lake that we have good, conservative representation in Washington.”

District 15 includes eastern Hillsborough County, northwest Polk County and southern Lake County. Half of the voters live in Hillsborough County, 35 percent in Polk County and 15 percent in Lake County.

Ross, a Republican, has held the seat for four terms. Before him, Adam Putnam of Bartow — now Florida’s commissioner of agriculture — occupied the seat from 2001 to 2011. Putnam was preceded by Lakeland’s Charles Canady, who was in office from 1993 to 2001.

Combee, 58, left the Legislature in November to accept an appointment as state executive director for the United States Department of Agriculture's Farm Service in Florida and the U.S. Virgin Islands. He resigned that position as of noon Tuesday to launch his campaign, and he was moving out of his office in the Gainesville area to head home Tuesday afternoon.

Although some Republican candidates seem to be distancing themselves from Trump, Combee proudly aligns himself with the president. Combee cited tax cuts, immigration and border security as issues of high importance to him.

Combee, a Lakeland native, attended Polk Junior College (now Polk State College) and Florida State University. He served on the Polk County Commission from 1988 through 2004. He was appointed in 2005 to the governing board of the Southwest Florida Water Management District and served until 2012, when he resigned to run for the Legislature.

Combee and his wife, Linda, have two grown children.

In February, The Ledger reported that Combee was being investigated for a possible violation of the Hatch Act, which prohibits certain political activities by federal appointees. Combee said Tuesday that investigators from the Office of Special Counsel told him he had been cleared.

Combee said he talked in recent days with three other Republicans — Kelli Stargel, Tom Lee and Ross Spano. Stargel, a state senator from Lakeland, announced Saturday she would not be running in District 15. Spano, a Florida representative from Brandon, has said he will run.

Lee, a state senator from Brandon, said Tuesday that he was “very seriously considering” joining the race but had not yet made a decision.

“All those people are friends of mine,” Combee said. “Needless to say, I was wanting to know what their interests were and what they were thinking. … I have just tremendous respect for Ross. He needs to do what he thinks is best, and I’ll do what I think is best and we’ll be friends before, during and after.”

Combee joins a growing field of Republican candidates. Ed Shoemaker of Lakeland has said he will run, and Danny Kushmer of Brandon announced Monday he would join the race. Loretta Miller of Clermont filed to run while Ross was still in the race.

Kushmer, 54, is executive director of International Responsible Farming Council, a not-for-profit corporation, and director of Environmental and Regulatory Compliance for Highland Precision Ag. He served as senior government affairs manager for the Southwest Florida Water Management District from 2007 to 2016.

Kushmer, a graduate of the University of Florida’s Wedgeworth Leadership Institute for Agriculture and Natural Resources, said he is familiar with Polk County. As president of the local chapter of the Florida Public Relations Association, he helped create the Carillon Classic at Bok Tower Gardens, which raised money for the George W. Harris Jr. Runaway and Youth Crisis Shelter in Bartow.

Six Democrats have filed to run in the District 15 primary: Phil Hornback, Andrew Learned, Cameron Magnuson, Ray Pena, Greg Pilkington and Jeffrey Rabinowitz.

Pena lives in Lakeland, and Pilkington resides in Indian Lake Estates.

Dave Johnson of Lakeland, a Green Party member, is running as an independent. 

The primaries will be held Aug. 28.

Some political observers predict Democrats will gain seats in the 2018 midterm election, possibly even enough to regain control of the House of Representatives. But J.C. Martin, chairman of the Polk County Republican Party, remains optimistic.

Martin said he expects Putnam to prevail among Republican contenders in the governor’s race. With a Bartow native on the ticket, he said, Republican turnout would be high for the Nov. 6 general election.

“It’s going to be a good year for Polk County Republicans,” Martin said. “Adam Putnam is going to drive turnout. That’s going to offset, I think, the population numbers in Hillsborough (in District 15).”

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

An earlier version of this story left out Dave Johnson, a Green Party member who is running as an independent candidate. An earlier version also said Neil Combee has degrees from Polk State College and Florida State University. Combee attended both institutions but did not graduate from either. This story has been updated.