LAKE WORTH (CBSMiami/NSF) – Six Republicans are running to the right as they seek to recapture a nationally watched congressional seat that covers a large part of Florida’s Treasure Coast.
Congressional District 18 leans Republican, but Democrat Patrick Murphy has held it since toppling conservative U.S. Rep. Allen West in 2012.
The seat, however, is open this year as Murphy seeks the Democratic nomination for U.S. Senate. Some observers, such as former Congressman Mark Foley, say the GOP primary contest in District 18 is hard to handicap.
“It’s so crowded it’s hard to differentiate (the candidates). I don’t think there is a front-runner,” said Foley, a Republican who represented much of the district from 1995 to 2006. “Every other person I talk to is for somebody else, which tells you if you were doing a random polling survey it is wide open.”
The Republican voters in Martin, St. Lucie and northern Palm Beach counties have an eclectic field from which to pick: former state Rep. Carl Domino, an investment manager who was defeated by Murphy in 2014; Martin County School Board member Rebecca Negron, who is married to incoming Florida Senate President Joe Negron; Mark Freeman, a physician who owns five Humana Medicare Advantage Centers and an Urgent Care Center; Brian Mast, a Harvard graduate and U.S. Army Ranger wounded in Afghanistan; attorney Rick Kozell; and Republican strategist and pundit Noelle Nikpour.
“Everyone has their own strengths,” Foley said while attending a recent GOP event in Lake Worth. “Negron has name recognition because of her husband and her school board activity. Brian Mast has made quite a name for himself. Carl Domino has run that region before. Kozell is on the phone, he works hard. It’s a spirited race.”
The winner will face the winner of a three-way Democratic primary and independent Carla Spaulding, a former Republican.
Key issues for district voters include planned private rail service — All Aboard Florida — between Orlando and Miami that won’t stop in the district and toxic algae blooms resulting from water releases out of Lake Okeechobee into the St. Lucie Estuary.
The candidates are all against the train and want the federal government to do more to reduce and clean discharges from the lake and to shift the flow of water south away from the estuary.
The Republicans also have campaigned on creating jobs, cutting taxes and regulations, reversing policies of President Barack Obama and standing up to Washington insiders.
Negron, 54, of Stuart, is seen by her opponents as an extension of her husband, the powerful state senator who unsuccessfully ran to replace Foley in 2006 before winning a seat in the Senate in 2009.
Rebecca Negron, who ran for school board for the first time in 2012, acknowledged the last name helps get her recognized and in fundraising. But she said she is running on her merits, not her husband’s achievements.
“I have my own record on the school board and I have my own reputation as someone who has worked, volunteered and lived in this community,” Rebecca Negron said.
Mast, 36, of Hutchinson Island, said a lot of national issues should be considered local.
“Terrorism is a local issue,” said Mast, who uses two prosthetic legs to walk after injuries suffered from an improvised explosive device. After suffering his wounds he graduated from Harvard, where he concentrated his studies on economics, with minors in government and environmental studies.
“When you look at the fact that the Orlando (Pulse nightclub) shooter came from St. Lucie, he was worshiping in Fort Pierce, that’s local,” Mast said. “What goes on with people who immigrate to America illegally, and the cost that they have on fire departments, police departments, schools, that’s a local impact.”
Freeman, 67, of Stuart, highlighted his medical and business experience to emphasize a need to replace the Affordable Care Act with what he says will be a less costly free-market system focused on preventive care.
Freeman also joined the others in giving support to Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump. But Freeman said while he would maintain a hard line against illegal immigration, more thought and study is needed on the costs before building a wall along the nation’s border with Mexico or simply “scouting out 11 or 12 million illegals and shipping them back.”
Domino, 72, of Jupiter, particularly has name recognition in the southern part of the district, serving in the state House from 2002 to 2010 and later making runs for the state Senate and Congress.
Domino considers himself the most able to get things done because he worked with other lawmakers despite not being part of any “inner circle” in Tallahassee.
“I’ve got a proven record that no one else does,” Domino said. “I have the biggest name recognition, even bigger than hers (Rebecca Negron’s), and hers is because of Joe. My job is to let people know it’s not Joe.”
Kozell, 34, of Jupiter, points to his experience as a small business owner for knowing the regulatory hurdles that people have to go through. He ran a marine-services business before going to law school.
“It’s a swing seat, you really have a chance to shape the dialogue,” Kozell said. “This is my home community. I’m a big believer in citizen legislators.”
He also noted that, “I’m the only one in this race who has spent time in D.C. fighting bureaucrats.” Kozell clerked for former U.S. Sens. George LeMieux and Tom Coburn while attending Georgetown University Law Center.
Nikpour could not be reached for comment.
In terms of campaign money, Freeman tops the list. As of June 30, he had put $1.2 million of his own money into the contest, which accounted for 81 percent of his receipts. He had also spent $1.27 million, including $800,131 between April 1 and June 30.
Domino, who has heavily contributed to his past campaigns, had anted up $407,899 of his own money as part of $464,877 in overall receipts, as of June 30.
Among the candidates who haven’t largely self-funded, Mast, who raised $450,877 in the second quarter, has crossed the $1 million mark in contributions and had $332,441 on hand as he entered the final two months of the primary campaign.
Negron had raised $912,821, of which $635,739 was unspent as of July 1.
Included in Negron’s contributions is $86,200 that has drawn criticism from Kozell and Domino.
Kozell called the money emblematic of the “insider sweetheart deals” that people are tired of seeing in Tallahassee and Washington.
The contributions are linked to a dental business that supported state legislation involving how dental care is made available to children and the poor. Joe Negron sponsored the legislation, approved in this year’s session.
Rebecca Negron said she “gets a lot of support from different areas” and considers herself “a person of integrity.” But when asked how the attacks are impacting the campaign, said she will leave the perceptions painted by her opponents to the voters.
For his part, Kozell had raised $590,359 as of June 30, of which $150,599 came in during the second quarter. He had $360,327 on hand when the third quarter began, the second most of any of the GOP candidates.
Nikpour, with $65,634 in her campaign account on July 1, raised $4,000 in the second quarter. Overall, she had raised $228,193, including $6,000 of her own money.
The News Service of Florida’s Jim Turner contributed to this report.