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.