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Lee’s campaign currently has more than $400,000 on hand, and a challenger will still have a steep road. Susan Walsh/AP

Donald Trump’s Revenge Tour Hits Florida

Rep. Laurel Lee has become a target of the former president’s ire. Will her Ron DeSantis ties pull her down?

Rep. Laurel Lee, the only Florida member of Congress to endorse Gov. Ron DeSantis’ presidential bid, is squarely in Donald Trump’s revenge path. Two candidates have announced their runs against her this month, following Trump’s call for “great MAGA Republicans looking to run against Laurel Lee” on Truth Social. Florida’s congressional candidate filing deadline is at the end of April.

“Reporting for duty, Mr. President!” Florida veteran James Judge, who won the Republican primary in Rep. Kathy Castor’s longtime Democratic district in 2022, announced on his campaign website this month. Judge hopped over to Lee’s race from running against Gus Bilirakis this cycle after Trump endorsed Bilirakis.

The other candidate, Brian Perras, told NOTUS that Trump’s post also inspired him to jump in the race, though he’s had little success garnering investment or widespread support in previous political races.

Lee’s campaign currently has more than $400,000 on hand, and a challenger will still have a steep road, one Florida Republican political consultant told NOTUS.

“Whoever gets in is going to have to raise a ton of money and build up a ton of goodwill…and it isn’t like Trump’s going to be on the trail. He may send out a couple Truth Social posts, but he’s going to be dealing with his race.”

However, this time around, it’s a very different political landscape for Lee, a first-term lawmaker. In 2022, Lee’s close association with DeSantis was a key selling point of her candidacy. “For Congress, there’s just one candidate trusted by Gov. DeSantis to secure our elections: Laurel Lee,” one 2022 campaign ad claimed. “I’m Laurel Lee, a conservative prosecutor appointed by Gov. DeSantis,” she said in another. The first sentence on her campaign website introduces her as a DeSantis appointee, paired with a photo next to him that still banners her campaign X account.

At the time, “DeSantis was at his kind of zenith of power and influence in Florida, almost to the extent of basically a DeSantis endorsement among, at least, consulting circles meant just as much or — you could make the argument — even more so than Trump,” the consultant said. “It also sent the message to all the interest groups and the folks in Tallahassee, ‘This is the person I want; open up the checkbooks.’” Now, the voice of Trump looms over the race. “He takes loyalty very seriously,” Lee’s Florida colleague Rep. Greg Steube said. “I thought it was very shortsighted on all of the state leaders that endorsed DeSantis with Trump in the race.”

Lee and her office declined to comment for this story. She told NOTUS in February, “My colleagues here all knew that I had worked as a senior part of the DeSantis administration and understood the background and history of our relationship.”

Like most of the small handful of U.S. representatives endorsing DeSantis, Lee eventually endorsed Trump in January — after DeSantis dropped out of the presidential race. But this didn’t prevent Trump from rallying against her.

Her DeSantis endorsement is not the only factor in her race, according to another Florida colleague. “I wouldn’t want to defend Laurel Lee’s voting record in a Republican primary in Florida,” Rep. Matt Gaetz said. Lee voted in favor of the September continuing resolution on government spending that prompted Gaetz to oust Kevin McCarthy.

Her new opponent, James Judge, is also claiming her votes “failed to uphold conservative values,” though Florida’s 15th Congressional District is among the state’s least conservative Republican districts, according to the Cook Political Report.

Rep. Chip Roy, a DeSantis endorser who hasn’t yet pivoted to supporting Trump, waved off the idea that the president’s revenge will hurt his fellow DeSantis supporters.

“I always point to the fact that my former boss Rick Perry ran against the former president, and he called him a cancer and then ended up being a secretary of energy, so I’m not too worried about quote repercussions.”

Others have a less rosy view of the current political landscape.

“Whether Trump’s recruiting candidates or not, there’s going to be repercussions for what candidates you support, that’s just politics,” Steube said.

Claire Heddles is a NOTUS reporter and an Allbritton Journalism Institute fellow.