Two more Republican heavyweights climbed aboard Thursday to endorse Tom Lee in his primary bid against Rep. Rachel Burgin in a Senate race that has turned ugly and personal.
Lee, a former Senate president from Brandon who is looking to return to the Legislature, received the endorsements of Sens. John Thrasher and Joe Negron in his quest to become the GOP nominee in District 24.
The support comes in addition to previous endorsements from incoming Senate President Don Gaetz, Senate Majority Leader Andy Gardiner and Sen. Jack Latvala.
Leaders often abstain from primary skirmishes, but top Senate Republicans have decided to stand behind Lee in a race that pits him against Burgin, a two-term House member, in the GOP-dominated eastern Hillsborough County district.
Burgin said she was not surprised by the announcement, saying she has had a target on her back since the campaign began from Republican leaders who don't agree with her conservative agenda. In the House, Burgin has been most prominent when pushing proposals to restrict abortion services.
"It is unprecedented," Burgin said. "But I'm not overly surprised to see that the Tallahassee insiders are trying to circle their wagons."
In a letter sent on Republican Party of Florida letterhead, the leaders publicly endorsed Lee for the Aug. 14 primary.
"We've watched Tom distinguish himself once again with his effective campaign driven by conservative ideas and a great record of service to Florida," Thrasher, the Senate rules chairman and a former state party chairman, said in a statement.
The endorsements come a few days after an attack mailer circulated in the district alleging marital infidelity by Lee during his previous legislative tenure.
The mailer by The American People Committee, whose chairwoman is Tallahassee lobbyist Keyna Corey, prompted RPOF chairman Lenny Curry to step in to denounce the personal attacks. Burgin has said she was unaware of the mailer.
Thrasher, R-St. Augustine, and Negron, R-Stuart, joined a growing list of party leaders to back Lee's candidacy. Latvala, a Clearwater Republican who is competing with Negron to become Senate president in 2016, took the opportunity to reiterate his support for his former colleague.
"I served side-by-side with Tom Lee for six years and know him to have a true commitment to doing what is best for the people of the state of Florida," Latvala said.
Burgin said the pushback by leadership may help her campaign.
"It has helped to rally people behind me," Burgin said. "People are tired of seeing Tallahassee elitists pick who is going to be in the Senate. I would say the majority of my conservative voters want a choice."