By Hastings Wyman –
In the two years since Donald Trump took office, there have been a number of special elections, particularly in the South, where the Democratic turnout has blossomed all out of historical proportion, in some cases winning offices in once-solid Republican bailiwicks, but in all cases surpassing Hillary Clinton’s share of the 2016 vote. Thus, Democrats are preparing well-financed campaigns in congressional districts still placed in the Republican column by most prognosticators.
One of these districts is Florida’s 18th, where Brian Mast (R) was elected to replace Democrat Patrick Murphy in 2016 and is now a freshman congressman. The 18th looks good for the GOP if you go by the 2016 returns. Trump carried the18th District by 53% to Hillary Clinton’s 44%. Mast (R) defeated Democratic businessman Randy Perkins by 54% to 43%.
The district includes part of Palm Beach County, which is urban and Democratic, and Martin and St. Lucie counties, which vote Republican. Overall, the 18th is 70% white, 15% Latino and 12% black.
Incumbent Mast “has got a good story,” says Randy Nielson, a political consultant in West Palm Beach . Indeed. Mast served in the Army for 12 years, including a tour in Afghanistan where he was a bomb technician. When a bomb exploded beneath him, he lost both legs and a finger. In an op/ed in the New York Times in late February, Mast wrote that the rifle he used in the Army was similar to the AR-style weapon used in the massacre at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, where Mast once lived. In the Army, “We used it because it was the most lethal – the best for killing our enemies,” he wrote. He called for a ban on future purchases of “the best killing tool the Army could put in my hands.” Mast’s recommendations for new gun laws include not only banning the sale of assault weapons, but raising the age limit for gun purchases, improving background checks, and holding accountable the FBI and state agencies for failures to identify potential assailants like Nikolas Cruz, the Parkland school assassin.
Mast continues to support the Second Amendment. He carries a concealed pistol “because I know the threats, and I don’t want to die because I am unprepared to return fire.”
“I don’t think Mast is in as much trouble as people think,” says Barney Bishop, a Florida political analyst. ‘He’s a veteran. He lost both legs. He’s somewhat of a centrist, not a far-right Republican, and some Democrats will vote for him.”
Mast could have a difficult primary, however. “Mast has to answer for his op/ed in the New York Times,” says Nielson. “It would help him in the General Election, but not in the primary.” Says Bishop, “There are 1.5 to 1.6 million people holding concealed weapon permits in Florida. They are a powerful force. They’re going to come out in the congressional districts.”
Nevertheless, President Trump has tweeted his support for Mast and will travel to Florida to help him. Moreover, says a longtime GOP operative about Mast, “Other than the NRA, nobody in the GOP is mad at him.”
In the money chase, at the end of 2017, Mast had $1,039,000 on hand. His 1st Quarter/2018 numbers are not yet available.
Last week, Karen Vaughn, a Gold Star mother who lost her son Aaron, a Navy seal, in Afghanistan when the helicopter he was riding in was shot down, announced she has been thinking about challenging Mast in the Republican Primary. Vaughn, an author and speaker, contends she has been receiving a lot of encouragement to run and will issue a news release this week. Vaughn addressed the 2016 National Republican Convention and the Florida delegation, both to “rousing ovations,” reported Sunshine State News (SSN). Opines SSN journalist Nancy Smith, Vaughn’s potential candidacy is “a sign the pro-gun conservative right” is ready to push back against the gun control movement inspired by the murders at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School.
Mark Freeman (R), who may or may not run, would probably be more serious competition for Mast in the GOP primary. He has yet to declare his candidacy and had a mere $1,403 at the end of last year, but if he decides to run, he can self-fund. When he ran for this seat in the 2016 primary, he spent $1.6 million, mainly his own money. In the Republican Primary, he came in third in a field of six with 16% of the vote, following school board member Rebecca Negron’s 27% and Mast’s 38%. Should Freeman run, his big issue would be Mast’s “flip on the gun issue,” says a GOP operative.
As for the General Election, “The Democrats view this as an opportunity,” says Nielsen.
The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC) has anointed its candidate, Lauren Bauer. She was a foreign policy assistant to Secretaries of State Hillary Clinton and John Kerry; she currently works in a global strategy firm founded by former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright. The DCCC has added Bauer to its “Red to Blue” program, which provides significant benefits to designated candidates in districts the Democrats hope to win over from the GOP.
Bauer grew up in the 18th District, attending public schools where she was valedictorian at Suncoast Community High School. She then graduated from Harvard, followed by Yale Law School and Oxford University. Members of her family own Baer’s Furniture, founded by Bauer’s great-grandfather; her father now has a commercial real estate firm in Palm Beach Gardens, where Baer now lives with her wife Emily and their young daughter Serena.
Baer had $1 million+ on hand as of March 31, with some $450,000 of that raised in the 1st Quarter, according to press reports. She has pledged not to accept contributions from corporate PACs, a pledge that Mast has also made.
“There is another candidate in the Democratic Primary; it could get nasty,” says NRCC operative Maddie Anderson, though there is no sign of that so far.
Pam Keith, a labor lawyer and former US Navy Judge Advocate General, ran a low-budget and no-name campaign for the US Senate in 2016. But after a feisty and well-received speech at a Democratic quarterly meeting, her campaign grabbed some attention, including that of the Miami Herald, which endorsed her in the Democratic Primary. She surprised observers by garnering 173,000 votes, or 15.4% of the primary turnout, not far behind former US Rep. Alan Grayson, the well-funded leftwing maverick with 17.7%. The primary was won by US Rep. Patrick Murphy (D), who lost the General Election to US Sen. Marco Rubio (R).
Keith was inspired to enter this year’s race for Congress by incumbent Mast’s vote for the Republican substitute for Obamacare. She is African-American, and to the extent that matters, the 18th District is 12% black. If you double that share to account for black voters’ overwhelming preference for the Democratic Party, she might have significant personal appeal to nearly a quarter of the vote in the primary. Nevertheless, Keith is a longshot in this race against the well-funded Bauer, whose resume easily rivals, if not surpasses, that of Keith. At the end of last year, Keith had $56,000 on hand in her campaign account.
The field in both parties may not be set, as qualifying doesn’t end until May 4. The primaries are on August 28.
For now, it looks like a Mast v. Bauer face-off in the fall, with Mast favored, but only if the Blue Wave doesn’t materialize big time. Stay tuned!