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
Add to Briefcase
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.

What We're Following See More »
U.S. May House 20K Immigrants on Military Bases
23 hours ago

"The United States is preparing to shelter as many as 20,000 migrant children on four American military bases" in Texas and Arkansas, "as federal officials struggled to carry out President Trump’s order to keep immigrant families together after they are apprehended at the border."

Vote on Compromise Immigration Bill Gets Bumped to Next Week
1 days ago

"House Republican leaders are further delaying a vote on a compromise immigration bill, planning to make changes to the legislation for a vote next week. The news comes after a two-hour Republican Conference meeting Thursday, in which authors of the bill walked through its contents and members raised concerns about issues the bill doesn’t address, multiple GOP lawmakers said. Many members requested the addition of a provision to require employers to use the E-Verify database to cheek the legal status of their employees."

Conservative Immigration Bill Goes Down to Defeat
1 days ago

After a conservative-backed immigration bill failed in the House, 193-231, leaders "postponed a vote on a 'compromise' immigration proposal until Friday. ... GOP leaders, however, are under no impression that they'll be able to secure the 218 votes needed in the next 24 hours to pass the text. Rather, the delay is to give members more time to read the bill."

Immigration Votes May Get Delayed Until Friday
1 days ago
Prosecutions of Families with Children at Border to Cease
1 days ago

Welcome to National Journal!

You are currently accessing National Journal from IP access. Please login to access this feature. If you have any questions, please contact your Dedicated Advisor.