Candidates in one of the county’s hottest congressional races squared off during a debate in West Palm Beach Friday, attacking each other over gun rights, health care and the toxic algae bloom fouling waters in the Treasure Coast.
The highest-profile candidates in the race — incumbent U.S. Rep. Brian Mast, R-Palm City, and Democrat Lauren Baer, a former State Department adviser — were on the receiving end of multiple barbs from their primary opponents as debate moderator Michael Williams, of WPTV Channel 5, asked the candidates a range of questions on a variety of issues.
Mast, trying to hold a seat Democrats have targeted as a key in their quest to recapture a majority in the U.S. House of Representatives, was ripped for announcing after the Parkland massacre that he backs gun control measures, including a ban on assault-style weapons.
“When Brian did that, he betrayed the conservative base,” said Mark Freeman, a physician making his second-straight attempt to win in District 18, which covers northern Palm Beach County and all of Martin and St. Lucie counties.
Mast, a U.S. Army veteran who lost both lower legs during an explosion in Afghanistan, said “we are not safer” when people have “unfettered access” to weapons like the ones he used in combat.
A third Republican in the race, real estate investor Dave Cummings, also attacked Mast for his support for an assault weapons ban, saying an earlier one, passed in 1994, was ineffective.
“It failed,” Cummings said. “We had Columbine, the D.C. snipers. It clearly didn’t work.”
In addition to gun control, the Republican candidates sparred over a spending bill backed by the Trump administration.
Cummings and Freeman said they would have supported it. Mast said he voted against it because it would harm environmental protection efforts in the district.
As expected, the toxic algae bloom figured prominently in the debate, with Mast touting his efforts to facilitate the construction of a reservoir south of Lake Okeechobee, which many environmentalists say is an important part of the solution to the problem because it would reduce discharges into the St. Lucie and Caloosahatchee estuaries.
For Cummings and Freeman, though, Mast’s efforts haven’t been enough.
“There was a lot of talk from Congressman Mast,” Cummings said, “but we’ve had no plan.”
Each of the GOP candidates said the algae bloom was the biggest issue in the district. Baer and her Democratic opponent, attorney and U.S. Navy veteran Pam Keith, disagreed.
For Baer, whose extended family owns and operates Baer’s Furniture, the top issue is health care.
She criticized Mast for voting to repeal the Affordable Care Act, better known as Obamacare.
“Right now, we are dealing with a crisis in our country,” Baer said.
Keith said the biggest issue facing the district is “a lawless president” whom she said does not respect the rule of law or the need for a free and independent press.
“I’m sorry, but there is no part of the country not affected by that,” she said.
With every opportunity, Keith, whose fundraising has not matched that of Baer, sought to put her opponent on the defensive, attacking her as a wealthy puppet of the Democratic establishment.
“The party backed Ms. Baer from the very beginning because of the wealth of her family,” Keith said. “This not something she’s earned.”
Baer countered that she does not look like a typical candidate in that she is young, a woman, a mother and a member of the LGBT community.
The Democrats differed on health care, with Keith supporting Medicare for all and Baer saying she has cost concerns about such an approach.
Baer said she wants to attack health care problems in a “pragmatic, fiscally responsible way.”
Keith said she’d bring boldness.
“When we elect people who are not committed to making big changes, we’ll never get big changes,” she said.
Unlike most congressional races, where the incumbent is a shoo-in because party registration tilts heavily in his or her favor, the fight for District 18 has profound significance for Democrats and Republicans.
Democrats see the seat as a pickup opportunity that would help them recapture a majority in the House.
The majority party picks the speaker, gets the most seats on committees and it gets to chair those committees.
With a majority, Democrats could initiate impeachment proceedings against Trump, whom many Democratic voters believe colluded with Russians to win the election and obstructed the investigation into that alleged collusion while also personally profiting from the presidency in violation of the U.S. Constitution.
With a win in District 18, Republicans will make it that much harder for Democrats to take the House, given the comparatively few truly competitive races across the country this fall.
While each party believes it can win District 18, registration figures and recent election results show a GOP lean that belies its reputation as a swing district.
Patrick Murphy, a Democrat, did win the seat in 2012 and 2014. But after Murphy declined to seek re-election as he pursued a U.S. Senate seat, Mast won the campaign to succeed him.
Mast’s win wasn’t by a small margin. He got 53 percent of the vote while his Democratic opponent, wealthy businessman Randy Perkins, got 44 percent of the vote.
That margin was similar to Trump’s margin of victory in the district. He got 52.8 percent of the vote, outpacing Hillary Clinton, who got 43.4 percent of the vote.
Republicans account for about 38 percent of registered voters in District 18, with Democrats accounting for about 34 percent. Voters with no party affiliation, meanwhile, account for 27 percent of registered voters.
That chunk of unaffiliated voters – and Trump’s unpopularity nationally – contribute to Democrats’ hopes.
Mast, though, has formidable advantages.
As an incumbent, he has had no trouble raising money for re-election. Through June, he had raised $3.9 million, nearly twice as much as the combined total raised by Baer and Keith.
In addition to his financial edge, Mast’s status as a disabled combat veteran strikes a chord with many in District 18, which is home to more than 61,000 veterans, according to U.S. Census Bureau figures.
Both parties hold primaries on Aug. 28, with the winners facing each other in November.