SEBRING — The latest turn in the agriculture commissioner race has Rep. Matt Caldwell alleging that Sen. Denise Grimsley accepted donations from Sen. Jack Latvala through his political action committee.

In turn, Grimsley’s campaign has pointed out that Caldwell’s accusation singles her out by implying that she is engaging in “earmarking,” while Caldwell supports candidates who also accepted funds from the same source.

POLITICO Florida has reported that Latvala’s Florida Leadership Committee put $400,000 into four other political committees run by lobbyist David Ramba, $25,000 of which ended up in Grimsley’s campaign.

Latvala, a Republican, represented the Pinellas County area in the Florida Senate from 1994 to 2002, and from 2010 to 2018, until November when accused in a sexual harassment scandal.

It has since been reported by Tampa-area media that Tallahassee-area state attorney Jack Campbell declared July 26 he did not have enough evidence to charge Latvala with trading votes for sexual favors during his 20-year relationship with lobbyist Laura McLeod.

Meanwhile, Latvala’s committee has remained active. Caldwell, of the Fort Myers/Lehigh Acres area, has accused Grimsley, of Zolfo Springs, with getting help to obtain “political welfare,” otherwise known as public financing.

Grimsley had previously returned $72,000 of Latvala funds after the scandal broke, Florida Politics reported. Caldwell said she should do the same with the other funds.

“The Commissioner of Agriculture fights for every day, hardworking Floridians — from alerting consumers about fraudsters and scam artists to empowering farmers and businesses to thrive around the state,” Caldwell said in a press release. “Denise already recognized it was wrong to take money from Jack Latvala by giving it to charity — why has she continued to take his money?

“We cannot trust a Commissioner whose hand is always in the cookie jar when they need a personal bailout, or who will take money from anyone willing to write a check,” Caldwell added.

However, Grimsley’s campaign has dismissed Caldwell’s accusations as “dirty politics” and questions his motives for making an issue of her finances, in particular.

“We can only assume it is because she is the best candidate in the race and winning the primary, so now he is resorting to attacking her,” Grimsley campaign spokesperson Sarah Bascom said in an email to Florida Politics. “We also find it ironic that he calls on her to return campaign financing that candidates he is actively supporting have also accepted.”

Bascom goes on to ask if Caldwell plans to ask all candidates who accepted such funds to return them, “or is this just another political stunt to revive his campaign? He can’t have it both ways.”

Given reported difficulty candidates have had getting name recognition, statewide, this has become an expensive race, Florida Politics reported, with Grimsley and Caldwell each having raised more than $2 million, with more than a million each on hand.

Florida Politics reports former Rep. Baxter Troutman of Winter Haven has invested $3 million of his own money in his campaign.

Caldwell, Grimsley, Troutman and Mike McCalister (R-Plant City) face each other on Aug. 28 in the primary.

Campaign financing, as of Friday, was as follows:

Caldwell has raised $754,490 in contributions and $23,040 of in-kind services, has spent $470,305 and has $96,389 listed as “other.”

Grimsley has raised $1.6 million in contributions and $106,839 of in-kind services, has spent $875,212 and has $71,207 listed as “other.”

McCalister has raised $3,866 in contributions, $18,738 in loans and $3,178 of in-kind services, and has spent $17,592, with $29.51 listed as “other.”

Troutman has raised $3.3 million in contributions and $4,147 of in-kind services, and has spent $3.1 million.

On the Democratic side of the race:

Nicole “Nikki” Fried (D-Fort Lauderdale) has raised $96,590 in contributions and $7,738 in loans, and has spent $44,305, with $8,440 listed as “other.”

Jeffrey Duane Porter (D-Cooper City) has raised $47,784 in contributions and $500 of in-kind services, and has spent $41,191.

Roy David Walker (D-Fort Lauderdale) has raised $20,835 in contributions, $159,882 in loans and $7,392 of in-kind services, and has spent $101,013.

For Highlands County voters, races available on all ballots — for Democrats, Republicans and non-affiliated voters — are the races for Highlands County commissioner, Highlands County School Board and both Group 10 and 11 for circuit judges.

Independent or non-declared voters will not get to choose Democrat and/or Republican candidates in other partisan races, including agriculture commissioner.

People who are uncertain of what’s on their ballot can check the sample ballots posted online by the Highlands County Supervisor of Elections Office at www.votehighlands.com.

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