Baer, Mast raise big bucks in close-watched Florida congressional race

This story was modified on Jan. 18.

Attorney Lauren Baer has now raised $575,000 in her bid to defeat U.S. Rep. Brian Mast in what will be one of the most hotly contested congressional races in the country this year.

Mast, R-Palm City, has been a staunch supporter of President Donald Trump, a factor Democrats hope will weaken him with voters in District 18, which includes northern Palm Beach County and the Treasure Coast. Although the district — comprised of Martin, St. Lucie and northern Palm Beach counties — is Republican leaning, voters in the area have vacillated between the parties since the turn of the century, electing three Republican representatives and two Democratic ones since 2004.

The strategy of tying Mast to Trump didn’t work in 2016, when Mast, a U.S. Army veteran who lost both legs during service in Afghanistan, beat wealthy businessman Randy Perkins, the Democratic candidate.

Mast’s military background was a focal point of his campaign, and he is continuing to rely on that biography, joining with other members of the Palm Beach County congressional delegation last week to open a congressional office in the Veterans Administration Medical Center in Riviera Beach.

A representative from the congressional offices of Mast, U.S. Rep. Lois Frankel, D-West Palm Beach, U.S. Rep. Ted Deutch, D-Boca Raton and U.S. Rep. Alcee Hastings, D-Delray Beach, will use shared space on the first floor of the medical center, which is located at 7305 N. Military Trail.

Mast’s representative will be available at the medical center from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. on Mondays. Frankel’s representative will be there at that time on Tuesdays, and Hastings’ representative will be there at that time on Thursdays.

Deutch’s representative will be available from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. on the first Wednesday of every month.

For Mast, having a congressional staffer at the medical center fulfills a campaign promise to veterans. He said the VA Medical Center will be the first in the nation with an on-site congressional office.

For Baer, whose extended family owns and operates Baer’s Furniture, the challenge will be to get voters to see past Mast’s military service.

“Mast was elected to represent the people of Palm Beach County and the Treasure Coast but has consistently shown himself more willing to please Republican leadership and special interests than his own constituents,” Baer said in a statement to The Palm Beach Post. “From his push to repeal the Affordable Care Act to his deeply unpopular tax vote, Mast regularly does the bidding of (U.S. House of Representatives Speaker) Paul Ryan, the president and wealthy Republican donors despite the fact that their favored policies make life more difficult for the majority of Americans.”

While Mast has embraced Trump priorities — supporting legislation that would have killed Obamacare and backing the tax plan that was approved late last year — he opposed the administration’s move to roll back Obama-era regulation that sought to bar oil drilling off Florida’s coast.

Of course, Florida elected officials of all stripes ripped the move, and on Tuesday the Trump administration announced it was backing down from the planned change. After a meeting with Florida Gov. Rick Scott, Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke announced drilling was “off the table” in the eastern Gulf of Mexico and the Atlantic Ocean near the coast of Florida.

Baer said being opposed to drilling off Florida’s coast won’t be enough to convince district voters Mast has their best interests at heart.

“Folks in this district are smart enough to recognize that selective breaks from leadership do not constitute genuine independence and are eager for a representative who will put them first,” she said.

Also seeking the Democratic Party nomination to challenge Mast is attorney Pam Keith, a U.S. Navy veteran. In 2016, she mounted an unsuccessful bid to be the Democratic Party’s nominee in the U.S. Senate race won by Marco Rubio.

That nomination went to Mast’s predecessor, Patrick Murphy, a Democrat who held the seat for two terms before deciding to take on Rubio. Murphy defeated conservative tea party favorite Allen West for the seat in 2012.

Before that, the area was represented by Republican Rep. Tom Rooney, who followed his district to Central Florida in 2012 because of redistricting. Rooney had defeated Democrat Tim Mahoney in 2008 in District 16, which included much of the same Treasure Coast-north Palm Beach County area as the current District 18.

Mahoney, whose political career imploded in his first term after allegations of extramarital affairs and a $122,000 lawsuit settlement to a former mistress on his congressional payroll, had won the seat in 2006, replacing Republican Mark Foley, whose sexually charged Internet messages to teenage former pages drove him to resign not much more than a month before the election.

Keith’s campaign did not respond to a request for comment about her congressional race.

Baer’s campaign said she raised $325,000 during the fourth quarter of 2017, bringing her total to $575,000.

Mast, meanwhile, expects to have more than $1 million in cash on hand after counting his fourth-quarter haul, his spokesman, Brad Stewart, said.

With the district’s history of electing representatives from both parties, Democrats have made beating Mast a crucial part of their effort to recapture a majority in the House this fall.

But Republicans do have the numbers advantage. For example, Republican Mitt Romney got 52 percent of the vote in the district in his unsuccessful bid for the White House, and Trump got 53 percent of the district vote – the same percentage Mast got in defeating Perkins for the congressional seat in 2016. Perkins got 43 percent.

For Republicans, holding the District 18 will make the Democrats’ goal all the more difficult.

The party that has a majority in the House gets to determine who chairs its committees and what bills are heard in those committees.

If Democrats win a majority, it is possible they will attempt to impeach Trump, whose opponents say has obstructed justice and profited financially from the presidency in violation of the U.S. Constitution.

Passage of the tax bill was seen as a major victory for Trump. Experts estimate the bill will add more than $1 trillion to the deficit, but some Republicans argue that the cost won’t be that high because it will spur economic growth.

“Every dollar less the government takes is a dollar more back in your pocket and this bill means the government will be taking a lot less,” Mast wrote in a statement about the tax plan. “By cutting tax rates, doubling the standard deduction and drastically increasing the child tax credit, our bill will put more money back in your paycheck and restore competitiveness for American Main Street!”

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