Decorated war veteran Brian Mast won a crowded Republican primary Tuesday while millionaire businessman Randy Perkins captured the Democratic nomination in nationally watched Palm Beach-Treasure Coast congressional District 18.
Mast and Perkins are both first-time candidates who only recently established residences in the district and who emphasized their compelling biographies during their primaries. Their general election is expected to be one of the most costly and competitive House races in the nation this fall.
>UPDATE: Complete local results at PalmBeachPost.com/elections
District 18 is 38.1 percent Republican and 34.6 percent Democrat, with 27.3 percent of voters belonging to no party or minor parties. It is an open seat because Rep. Patrick Murphy, D-Jupiter, left to run for U.S. Senate. Murphy won his Democratic Senate primary Tuesday and will face incumbent Republican Sen. Marco Rubio.
Mast, 36, is a former Army special operations bomb specialist who walks on prosthetic limbs after losing his legs from an improvised explosive device in Afghanistan in 2010.
“I couldn’t be more grateful to all the people who helped me out. This is a feat of many hands working together,” Mast said in an interview after returns showed him prevailing over five GOP rivals.
Mast said his general election message will be “that I serve everybody… It’s the way people on the battlefield do it. I served people – it didn’t matter if they had Republican or Democrat after their names.”
Perkins, 51, once received public assistance but built a one-man landscaping service into a multimillion-dollar disaster relief business.
Perkins said he was “humbled and honored” by his victory. “As your congressman I will do what I have been doing my entire career — work with Democrats and Republicans to solve problems and make a real difference in people’s lives.”
Mast and Perkins will be joined on the November ballot by no-party candidate Carla Spalding.
Mast won the GOP race after weathering late attacks over fundraising help he received from members of the Fanjul family, which runs sugar giant Florida Crystals.
The sugar industry is controversial in the Treasure Coast because runoff from sugar fields and other agriculture contributes to pollution of the St. Lucie River. Members of the Fanjul family were on the host committee for two Mast fundraisers. Mast returned their contributions – but his rivals blasted him for not returning all the money he raised from the events.
Mast’s campaign raised more than $1.3 million and was helped by an outside group called Valor Fund that spent more than $147,000 in the last month of the campaign on mail, phone calls and digital ads to boost Mast and, in some cases, attack rival Rebecca Negron, who finished second in the primary.
Perkins also presented himself as a non-politician and problem solver in his primary race against attorney Jonathan Chane and retired engineer John (Juan) Xuna.
National Democrats hoping to keep District 18 in Democratic hands coalesced early behind Perkins, believing his rags-to-riches story and ability to self-finance make him the strongest general election candidate. Perkins ended up pumping more than $3.7 million of his own money into his primary campaign.
Chane cast himself as the only true Democrat in the race, criticizing Perkins for hefty campaign contributions he’s made to Florida Gov. Rick Scott and other Republicans. Perkins fired back by criticizing Chane’s past work representing a tobacco company and banks that foreclosed on homeowners.
Both national parties have already offered a preview of the general election. Anticipating a Perkins win in the Democratic primary, the National Republican Congressional Committee this month began running digital ads that attack Perkins as “Rip-off Randy” and highlight some past negative headlines involving his company, AshBritt. Perkins’ campaign called the ads “false and misleading.”
The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee blasted Mast shortly after his victory, calling his conservative views “extreme” and likening him to former Republican Rep. Allen West, the conservative firebrand who was unseated by Murphy in 2012.