One of the most pivotal congressional races in the country — playing out in Florida’s District 18 in northern Palm Beach County and up the Treasure Coast — is likely to come down to a big question: What is this race about?
The candidates have all offered up their own answers.
For Republican incumbent Brian Mast, it’s the toxic algae bloom that has transformed waterways in the district into a smelly green goo.
He speaks on the subject frequently, has introduced legislation to address it, and he’s produced a documentary, “The Tortured Coast,” to highlight the impacts of the problem.
Freeman, a physician making his second consecutive attempt to win in District 18, has made gun ownership rights a central theme of his campaign.
He has said Mast “betrayed the conservative base” of the party by coming out in support of gun control measures.
Cummings, a business owner and U.S. Army veteran, has sought to exploit cracks between Mast and President Trump, who carried District 18 when he won the presidency in 2016.
He criticized Mast’s opposition to a Trump-backed spending bill. And he has argued that Mast, a U.S. Army veteran who lost both lower legs during an explosion in Afghanistan, has used his military experience for votes.
“When you serve your country, you do it strictly because you serve your country,” Cummings said during an interview with WPTV Channel 5. “The end. And if that’s something people want to know in order to vote for you, I respect that. But I think it should not be advertised as your No. 1 reason for why you’re looking for votes.”
On the Democratic side, attorney Lauren Baer sees the race as a referendum on Mast’s support for the unsuccessful push to repeal the Affordable Care Act, better known as Obamacare.
Baer, a State Department adviser during the Obama administration, has blasted Mast for voting to repeal the law, a vote that drew scores of angry residents to Mast town halls last year
“I think health care is a fundamental human right,” she said during an editorial board meeting at The Palm Beach Post, adding that she backs legislation that would allow people and businesses to buy into Medicare.
While Baer has been aiming her rhetorical fire at Mast, she’s got a primary opponent, too.
That would be Pam Keith, an attorney and U.S. Navy veteran who made an unsuccessful run for the U.S. Senate in 2016.
Keith said the most important issue facing voters in the district isn’t health care or toxic algae or gun rights. It’s Trump, whom she described in a recent debate as a “a lawless” president who does not respect the rule of law or a free and independent press.
Trump’s impact on the race could grow if the results of the federal investigation into possible collusion with Russia are known before the general election on Nov. 6.
Many Democrats already believe the Trump campaign colluded with Russia. Many also believe the president obstructed the investigation into possible collusion and that he and his family have profited from the presidency financially in violation of the U.S. Constitution.
Those beliefs, along with outrage about the president’s language and personal behavior, have energized Democratic voters and given the party hope that it can recapture control of the U.S. House of Representatives.
Republicans who support Trump know well what losing the majority could mean: impeachment proceedings against the president.
A secret recording of comments from a California congressman, Devin Nunes, underscored those fears and outlined the stakes for congressional races like those in District 18.
Referencing Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ decision to recuse himself from oversight of Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation, Nunes said: “If Sessions won’t unrecuse and Mueller won’t clear the president, we’re the only ones. Which is really the danger. I mean, we have to keep all these seats. We have to keep the majority.”
The secret recording, made as Nunes spoke at a fundraiser in July, was first aired by MSNBC.
Freeman was even more blunt than Nunes in a recent tweet.
“Midterm Elections are growing in importance,” he tweeted. “Sessions won’t rescind his recusal on the Mueller Hunt. Without a strong Republican Congress and Senate to protect him, President Trump will face impeachment proceedings, paralyzing his Presidency. WE MUST DEFEND PRESIDENT TRUMP.”
Mast hasn’t joined in the GOP’s bashing of Mueller, but he has echoed the call of party members for the investigation to come to an end.
“I think it needs to be put up or shut up,” he said of the investigation.
Previewing a general election theme the campaign expects to exploit after the primary, Mast has repeatedly ripped Baer and Keith for not saying the algae bloom is the top issue for District 18 voters.
“I won’t speculate why they chose to ignore the clearly most important issue,” said Mast’s spokesman, Brad Stewart. “You’ll have to ask them that. But what I can tell you is that Congressman Mast believes that toxic algae and Lake Okeechobee discharges are unequivocally the most important issue.”
City of residence: Palm Beach Gardens
Education: JD, Yale
Key quote: “America’s ability to project strength around the world begins with a strong foundation at home. That means focusing on job creation and economic policies that preserve and expand the middle class; protecting our environment; ensuring that all children have access to first-rate public schools; enacting common-sense gun safety measures; preserving medicare and social security; and guaranteeing quality, affordable health care for all.”
City of residence: Fort Pierce
Education: MA, American Military University
Profession: business owner
Key quote: “I will protect the Second Amendment. The water issue, economic growth, and illegal immigration are also major issues. We have the greatest paradise on earth with HUGE lifestyle and tax advantages for businesses, yet very few politicians use these to attract new companies. As a local entrepreneur, I will work hard to do this.”
City of residence: Stuart
Education: MD, Boston University
Key quote: “Brian Mast betrayed us. Voting as a progressive liberal in Congress— Betraying the second amendment — Voting for sex change operations in the military. Dem registration is up so without conservatives Brian Mast will lose. A vote for Brian Mast is a vote to lose this seat.”
City of residence: Palm Beach Gardens
Education: JD, Boston College
Key quote: “I support Single-Payer (Medicare for All). I support gun policy reform that bans assault weapons and requires all gun owners to carry liability insurance. I support PUBLIC education and paying teachers what they are worth. I support the full decriminalization of Cannabis and restorative justice. I support using all methods available to force purchase of the land south of Lake Okeechobee and the funding of water management projects to move cleaned water into the Everglades.”
City of residence: Palm City
Education: BLA, Harvard
Profession: member of the U.S. House of Representatives
Key quote: “The most important issue is the devastation of our water. This impacts everyone: businesses forced to close, people getting sick, animals killed and our environment destroyed. Health and safety needs to be made a top priority to prevent these discharges. Working together, we’ve secured a commitment to authorize the Southern Storage Reservoir, full funding to expedite completion of the Herbert Hoover Dike, and hundreds of millions of dollars to combat toxic algal blooms, prevent harmful agricultural runoff and restore the Everglades. Our campaign is not about one individual, but about defending our community by putting people first.”
KNOW YOUR CANDIDATES
The people running for office in their own words, myPalmBeachPost.com/kyc