The Veteran Who Has House Republicans on Offense

Brian Mast offers the party one of its best chances to flip a seat in an otherwise defensive year.

Republican Brian Mast speaks with a man at a shooting range in Jensen Beach, Fla.
Kimberly Railey
Kimberly Railey
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Kimberly Railey
Oct. 4, 2016, 8 p.m.

STU­ART, Fla.—Bri­an Mast, a double am­putee vet­er­an-turned-con­gres­sion­al-can­did­ate, re­galed a crowd cramped in­side a real-es­tate of­fice in this sea­side town last week with a story about his pros­thet­ic legs.

At a gas sta­tion re­cently, he told them, a man ap­proached him to ask, “Where were you in­jured?” Used to the ques­tion by now, Mast tried a new an­swer. “My legs,” he quipped. “Can’t you see?”

Mast went on to tell the man about his mil­it­ary ser­vice in Afgh­anistan, a dom­in­ant theme of his cam­paign in this south­east Flor­ida dis­trict. But Mast’s bid stands out for an­oth­er reas­on: In a cycle when Re­pub­lic­ans are de­fend­ing dozens of seats, Mast of­fers his party one of its best op­por­tun­it­ies to add one.

“This is a Re­pub­lic­an-lean­ing seat,” Mast said. “This is a very good seat for our next pres­id­ent, Don­ald Trump, and it’s a good seat for me in that this is a very vet­er­an-heavy dis­trict.”

The Re­pub­lic­an faces wealthy busi­ness­man Randy Per­kins, whose self-fund­ing has made him one of the Demo­crats’ best-fin­anced can­did­ates. Both are com­pet­ing to re­place Rep. Patrick Murphy, the Demo­crat­ic nom­in­ee for Sen­ate.

Des­pite Murphy’s two vic­tor­ies there, Re­pub­lic­ans are em­boldened by re­cent elect­or­al trends. Mitt Rom­ney car­ried the dis­trict by 4 points in 2012, four years after Pres­id­ent Obama won it by 3 points.

It’s a pres­id­en­tial battle­ground in Flor­ida once again, with statewide polls show­ing a tight race between Trump and Hil­lary Clin­ton. The former sec­ret­ary of State ral­lied sup­port­ers here Fri­day in Fort Pierce, 20 miles north of Mast’s event.

That day, from the pas­sen­ger seat of a sedan, Mast re­vealed few re­ser­va­tions about sup­port­ing Trump. He said he would “ab­so­lutely” ap­pear at an event with the GOP nom­in­ee if he vis­ited the dis­trict, and he read­ily aligned him­self with two of Trump’s sig­na­ture po­s­i­tions: trade and build­ing a wall along the U.S.-Mex­ic­an bor­der.

But on the feud between Trump and the Gold Star fam­ily, the Khans, who spoke at the Demo­crat­ic Na­tion­al Con­ven­tion, Mast pinned blame on both sides.

“They chose to go out there and put them­selves in the polit­ic­al crosshairs,” Mast said. “Do I think Trump should’ve let it be? Yes.”

A Swing Dis­trict

Sev­er­al at­tendees at Mast’s first stop of the day said his mil­it­ary back­ground was a com­pel­ling reas­on to vote for him. But a couple sup­port­ers ex­pressed con­cerns about the GOP nom­in­ee top­ping the tick­et.

Stu­art res­id­ent Ry­an Furt­wan­gler said he has lowered his bar dis­turb­ingly far in the pres­id­en­tial race, and his “gut” tells him he has to vote for Liber­tari­an Gary John­son, “even though that’s not my ideal can­did­ate.”

Demo­crats are con­vinced that Mast is too con­ser­vat­ive for this evenly di­vided dis­trict, loc­ated on Flor­ida’s scen­ic Treas­ure Coast, which as of Tues­day even­ing was in the po­ten­tial path of Hur­ricane Mat­thew.

Per­kins is cam­paign­ing on a rags-to-riches tale of found­ing one of the coun­try’s premi­er dis­aster-re­lief com­pan­ies. His sig­ni­fic­ant self-fund­ing has also al­lowed Per­kins to de­liv­er his own mes­sage over the air­waves rather than rely on out­side help. His TV ads have linked Mast to two con­tro­ver­sial con­ser­vat­ives, ra­dio host Mark Lev­in and former Re­pub­lic­an Rep. Al­len West, who lost the seat to Murphy in 2012 even as Rom­ney car­ried the dis­trict.

“He’s an ex­trem­ist,” Per­kins said of Mast dur­ing a 20-minute phone in­ter­view late Monday night. “He’s very rad­ic­al in the way he thinks, and I don’t think people in this dis­trict are go­ing to em­brace that.”

The ex­ter­i­or of Mast’s cam­paign headquar­ters here, just off the heav­ily traf­ficked U.S. Route 1, is plastered with cam­paign ads that show him in a mil­it­ary uni­form. And Mast grows most an­im­ated when dis­cuss­ing his 12-year mil­it­ary ca­reer in the Army that earned him the Purple Heart medal.

Serving as a bomb-dis­pos­al ex­pert in Afgh­anistan in 2010, he lost both legs when a road­side IED ex­ploded near him.

After his break­fast cam­paign event, Mast stopped by an in­door shoot­ing range north of Stu­art. Wear­ing khaki shorts and an Amer­ic­an flag belt, Mast fired off rounds with a 9mm and in­sisted on teach­ing his staffer and a re­port­er how to shoot a .22 caliber pis­tol. He was friendly with the staff, and was ap­proached a few times by pat­rons who thanked him for his ser­vice.

“I’m not go­ing to be out-vet­er­aned by my op­pon­ent,” Mast said in the car on the way to the range.

An Ex­pens­ive Race

Cit­ing high neg­at­ives for both pres­id­en­tial nom­in­ees and the un­pre­dict­ab­il­ity of that race, Re­pub­lic­an and Demo­crat­ic strategists were re­luct­ant to give either Mast or Per­kins the edge down-bal­lot.

“The dis­trict has al­ways shown close races,” said Rick Asnani, who heads a bi­par­tis­an con­sult­ing firm in South Flor­ida. “At a cer­tain point, money doesn’t be­come the driv­ing factor any­more.”

Neither can­did­ate has filed third-quarter fun­drais­ing re­ports yet, but Per­kins es­tim­ated that he spent some $6 mil­lion of his own money so far and had about $1.5 mil­lion in his cam­paign ac­count. The Demo­crat-aligned House Ma­jor­ity PAC also has $902,000 worth of TV time booked.

Mast said he had about $300,000 in the bank. He is also re­ceiv­ing sub­stan­tial help from the Na­tion­al Re­pub­lic­an Con­gres­sion­al Com­mit­tee and the Con­gres­sion­al Lead­er­ship Fund. Since the Aug. 30 primary, the NR­CC has shelled out more than $1.1 mil­lion on his be­half to cast Per­kins as a shady busi­ness­man who is purely mo­tiv­ated by profits.

Per­kins, ar­guing that the at­tacks are en­tirely base­less, noted that he is pre­pared to go “toe-to-toe” with GOP groups on the money front. More than once, he em­phas­ized that he will not hes­it­ate to in­vest more of his own cash.

“The Re­pub­lic­an Party needs to un­der­stand they will not out­spend me,” Per­kins said.

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