Constitutional conservative versus progressive. 

Leaning into their respective political parties, the race for Florida’s 18th Congressional District features two candidates who represent starkly different visions for their local community, and highlights some of the stark differences between the Democratic and Republican parties in the 2020 political landscape.

Both veterans, they say they are committed to ensuring the safety and prosperity of the environment, yet propose different ways to go about it and different priorities that can muddy those missions. 

U.S. Rep. Brian Mast, R-Palm City, is seeking reelection Nov. 3, while Fort Pierce Democrat Pam Keith hopes to unseat the two-term congressman.

Third-party candidate K.W. Miller — a self-described strict constitutionalist running a campaign mostly on social media, at times promoting conspiracy theories — could play into the outcome if the race between Mast and Keith is tight enough.

The campaign has featured its fair share of mudslinging, controversy and debate, which has raised its profile and likely has encouraged more money dumped into a seat Democrats believe they can flip and Republicans expect to comfortably retain.

Mast raised $3.9 million through July and had $1.8 million cash on hand, according to campaign finance reports, while Keith raised $282,000 with $181,000 cash on hand.

Fundraising likely has picked up since the primary, but most-recent data is not yet available.

More: Race for Florida’s 18th Congressional District shaping up to be close and extremely partisan

Does the algae keep you up at night? 

After resoundingly defeating her more-moderate primary opponent in August, Keith delivered a victory speech that leaned into her base. As she often does to her more than 100,000 Twitter followers, Keith railed against President Trump, the Republican Party and Mast. 

In an interview with TCPalm after her speech, celebrating winning 80% of the vote after unsuccessful runs for elected office, Keith said it’s “not the algae that is keeping people up at night.” Instead, she said, it’s “not having a job, not having health care and wondering whether they’re going to put their kid in school.” 

Keith’s base is in St. Lucie County, where local waterway issues may be less prominent, especially for voters living in poverty. Mast’s base is in the more wealthy Martin and northern Palm Beach counties, which he has carried in his two prior general elections with about 57% of the and where water issues can cut across political lanes, given its effects on public health and the local economy.

Mast has starred in this local political climate since winning his first election in 2016, catering to a contingency hungry for a fighter for the water, regardless of party.

Keith’s comments, downplaying the local water crisis, opened her to criticism from Mast and environmental advocates.

As the general election campaign has evolved, the Democrat shifted toward a more aggressive water policy, unveiling an aggressive plan to solve the community’s water issues: have the federal government take at least some of U.S. Sugar’s land south of Lake Okeechobee in order to send water south, and, in effect, avoid the possibility of toxic discharges flowing east and into local waterways.  

More: Pam Keith proposes taking sugar land by federal eminent domain; Trump, Mast tout environment nearby

The plan to utilize eminent domain is not new or unique. For now, clean-water advocates have been focused on supporting, and oftentimes championing, Mast’s more pragmatic, step-by-step efforts as a plausible way to promote their cause.

Mast recently proposed legislation to prohibit the Army Corps of Engineers from discharging Lake Okeechobee water containing toxic algal blooms with at least 8 parts per billion microcystin into the St. Lucie Estuary and Indian River Lagoon.

“If she’s attacking me on” the environment, Mast said after the primary, then “it shows how little she’s paying attention to the community.” 

More: ‘That fight starts right away’: Mast announces bill to prohibit toxic Lake O discharges

Controversy and partisanship

Mast’s first move after the primary was to attack Keith with $150,000 TV attack ad. It zeroed-in on a tweet in which she called the Republican party the “racist, misogynist, white supremacist GOP” and said former Vice President Joe Biden has “a lot of rape to do” to catch up with Trump.

Keith defended the tweet about Biden as “snarky,” arguing that critiques of it lost the point she was trying to make. 

More: Mast campaign wastes no time launching attack at Democrat Pam Keith in congressional race

Mast quickly found himself in the middle of a controversy of his own, following the surfacing of hi own comments about rape. In 2009 and 2011 he commented on his now-campaign manager’s Facebook page, once joking about sex with 15-year-old girls and another time joking about rape.

More: Facebook comments surface from Brian Mast, joking about sex and rape; Rep. apologizes for mistakes

A lead sponsor on a military rape-survivor bill, Mast called his decade-old comments “disgusting.” His campaign noted he as at the time recovering from injuries that left him a double amputee. Still, only one of the comments was during that recovery; the other came prior to his military deployment. 

Keith, a former U.S. Navy JAG officer, has heavily critiqued her opponent for the comments. 

When The Atlantic and other media reported Trump has disparaged members of the military, Keith questioned whether her opponent would critique the president.

Mast has not, telling TCPalm in a statement: “Every time I have seen the president, he has looked me in the eye and sincerely thanked me for my service and what that service took from me.”

Trump, Mast insisted, is committed to fighting for veterans and ending wars.

Keith recently launched her first TV ad, a $100,000 buy centered around Trump’s reported comments on the military. The ad concludes: “I will defend the honor of those who put on the uniform, even if Brian Mast won’t.”

Policy differences 

The candidates differ vastly when it comes to policy, everything from the Second Amendment to health care. 

Mast is a staunch supporter of the Second Amendment, while Keith favors restrictions for public safety; Mast said he would support sensible gun regulations in the wake of the Parkland shooting. 

Keith supports universal health care, a Green New Deal and a livable minimum wage. She backs progressive policies that have led Mast to call her a member of the “radical left,” associating her with Sen. Bernie Sanders and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio Cortez.

Mast prefers to talk about politics from the bottom-up, saying his first obligation is to the needs of his constituents, regardless of party. Keith said it’s most important to elect Democrats so they can pass sweeping policies in Congress, which she thinks will benefit constituents.

Third-party question marks 

K.W. Miller, a non-party-affiliate candidate on the ballot, is a conservative who has promoted conspiracy theories on social media. 

More: District 18 grabs national spotlight over viral, conspiracy theory Tweets meant to ‘bait’

Mast’s campaign paid Miller little attention, avoiding amplifying someone who interacts with the fringes of the internet, like QAnon, while Keith and her campaign have talked up Miller — noting if the Jensen Beach resident picks up enough votes, it could help her and cost Mast. 

Miller has filed no campaign finance records, which could be a violation of campaign-finance laws. He continues to solicit donations on his website and on social media. 

Biography

Brian Mast

  • Served in the Army for 12 years, and awarded: the Bronze Star; Army Commendation Medal for Valor; Purple Heart; and Defense Meritorious Service Medal. 
  • Wounded in Afghanistan while serving as a bomb technician for the Joint Special Operations Command, losing both of his legs.
  • Member of House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee and Foreign Affairs committees, where he has worked on issues related to Lake Okeechobee, the Everglades and veterans rights.
  • Won election to 18th Congressional District first in 2016 over Democrat Randy Perkins, with 54% of the vote; won reelection in 2018 over Lauren Baer with 54% of the vote.

Pam Keith

  • Served in the Navy from 1995-1999 as JAG officer.
  • Born in Turkey to a U.S. diplomat; grew up in California.
  • Worked as an attorney at major law firms and later as  senior in-house counsel for NextEra Energy, Florida Power & Light Co.
  • Ran for 18th Congressional District in 2018, losing in the Democratic primary to Lauren Baer. Ran unsuccessfully for U.S. Senate in 2016 against a crowded field featuring Patrick Murphy. 

Joshua Solomon is a politics reporter covering the Treasure Coast. You can reach him at 772-692-8935 or joshua.solomon@tcpalm.com. 

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