The elderly constituent in a white blouse would pose a thorny political problem for many Republicans nationwide. Not so for Rep. Brian Mast, who, talking at a senior center in his Palm Beach district, gamely takes on her question: Should semiautomatic weapons be outlawed?
The Florida congressman starts by establishing his firearm bona fides, from hunting with his grandpa and becoming an NRA member as a preteen to touting the 9 mm pistol he often carries today. Then, he suddenly pivots to the left: “There are some absolutely incredible holes in the system of how we sell firearms,” the veteran says, including inadequate criminal and mental health background checks and unfettered gun sales in the streets. Recently, he led bills to address those concerns. And if any conservative constituent wants to question his gun competency? Just take one look at his Purple Heart — and the prosthetics this former Army bomb technician walks on, made necessary after he lost both legs to an improvised explosive device in Afghanistan (Mast also lost one finger).
Mast’s tack toward stricter gun control is just one way many Republican incumbents in competitive U.S. House districts are seeking issues to differentiate themselves from President Donald Trump ahead of November elections that are trending toward a blue wave. A second way is evident in northern Virginia, where Rep. Barbara Comstock opposed the president’s ban on immigrants from majority-Muslim countries, and she emphasizes that policy break by campaigning everywhere from Eid al-Fitr festivals at a local Muslim mosque to Bangladeshi-American soccer tournaments. Third, Miami Rep. Carlos Curbelo separated himself by recently introducing a carbon tax bill that would curtail emissions and address climate change even further than the Paris climate agreement Trump backed out of last year. In a fourth case, Rep. Scott Taylor, a former Navy SEAL representing the Virginia Beach area, has introduced a gay rights bill making gender identity or sexual orientation discrimination illegal in rentals or house sales.
He supports the president, but he does what he thinks is correct.
George Franklin, voter, on Rep. Brian Mast
There are 50 Republican-held seats considered a “toss-up” or “leans Republican” in 2018, according to the Cook Political Report. Sure, there are some who believe their best shot is sticking with Trump through thick and thin. In competitive Orange County, California, Rep. Dana Rohrabacher has earned Twitter plaudits from Trump for sticking with the president. But many others don’t feel they have that choice. Each of them has to decide where to break with Trump based on their constituency’s needs. “You’re allowed a mulligan or two on disagreeing with Trump, you’ve just got to be careful, strategic and polite on how you use that mulligan,” says Chip Lake, a GOP strategist in Georgia.
For Mast, who won the former Democratic seat in 2016 with 53 percent of the vote, taking on gun violence was a natural fit after the Parkland mass shooting just an hour south of his district. It’s an issue high on Floridians’ minds, given the school tragedy, the Pulse nightclub shooting in 2015 and this weekend’s carnage in Jacksonville. Meanwhile, Comstock has to appeal to diverse coalitions in a region where more than 30 percent of her voters are Black, Latino or Asian.
Voters don’t like representatives who reflexively oppose or applaud the president, but want someone who “is calling it honest,” Curbelo said at OZY Fest in July. Curbelo’s Miami district backed Hillary Clinton by 16 percentage points in 2016 — a larger margin than any other GOP-held congressional district with an incumbent. “Often times, recently, that means I’m pushing back against the White House,” he added.
Even candidates with sterling Trumpian track records have shifted from the controversial president when necessary. Taylor has voted with Trump 97.7 percent of the time, according to FiveThirtyEight’s vote tracker. But his gay rights bill works against efforts by Trump’s federal agencies, from his Department of Health and Human Services to his Department of Education, to roll back similar protections for LGBTQ people. It’s a reflection of Taylor’s constituency, full of conservatives who “don’t give a hoot about whether you love another man or a woman,” says Quentin Kidd, a political scientist and pollster. “The millennial Republican voters here are more libertarian on social issues, not a Pat Robertson or Jerry Falwell kind of Republican.”
Some Republican strategists insist the president’s influence in congressional races is overstated. “It’s a mistake to think people are going to be able to win elections by identifying themselves with an incumbent president,” says Karl Rove, former senior adviser to George W. Bush. Or against Trump, for that matter. Authenticity is going to matter more than their relationship with the president, Rove says, more important than “trying to figure out the two or three things I can disagree with him on.” The focus should be less on national issues and more on what they are bringing back to their local communities.
Mast has clearly internalized the local-first strategy. He keys his senior center speech on local issues, from algae blooms at nearby Lake Okeechobee to his leadership in opening up a regional veterans office. Still, national issues do come up, and can leave candidates like Mast on an island. After he wrote a New York Times editorial in February in support of an assault weapons ban, the first-term lawmaker admits he was questioning his decision. But morally convinced he was right, he brought it to his constituents. “Just be honest,” he says. At the end of town halls, Mast often tells voters with typical bluntness: “There will be some of us who agree, or disagree. My hope by the end of it is that you don’t feel like I BS’ed you.”
That tactic may come across as a bit Pollyannaish. But in Palm Beach, it seems to be working. “We’re going to vote for Mast, because of all his ideas. He is frank, and he tells you what he believes,” says retired postal worker Herbert Finkelstein, at the senior center with his wife, Claudine. He voted for Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton in past presidential elections. “This is basically a Democratic bastion,” says law enforcement officer George Franklin, yet Mast has his backing because of his independence. “He supports the president, but he does what he thinks is correct,” Franklin says.
For Republicans to keep the House majority, they will have to convince fence-sitters like Irving Rikon, a Democrat who is considering voting for Mast. “He believes what he says,” adding, pointedly, “I’m not sure Donald Trump does.”