Photo: Washington Post Photo By Jabin Botsford.
PALM BEACH, Fla. – In a congressional race where an acolyte of Roger Stone who’s been banned by Twitter and Facebook may not even be the most unconventional candidate, voters in the Republican primary for Florida’s 21st Congressional District have a rich array of choices.
The six people competing in the Aug. 18 primary include a former burlesque dancer and wild animal exhibitor who did business in the same circles as “Tiger King” Joe Exotic; a Palm Beach neighbor of Mar-a-Lago who is supported by QAnon believers; and Laura Loomer, a far-right commentator and anti-Islam activist who calls herself “the most banned woman on the Internet” and who once handcuffed herself to the front door of Twitter’s office in New York.
There’s also an ex-cop, a nuclear engineer-turned college professor and a retired investigator for the IRS.
Among the constituents they hope to represent: the president and first lady. The Trumps registered as Republicans in Palm Beach County in October when President Trump changed his official domicile from Manhattan to his Mar-a-Lago Club in Palm Beach. They both voted by mail in the March presidential primary.
All six candidates are political newcomers running in a heavily Democratic district that covers Palm Beach, West Palm Beach and parts of Broward County. One of them will face Lois Frankel, a Democrat who ran unopposed two years ago, or her primary opponent, Guido Weiss, a former legislative assistant for Rep. Tulsi Gabbard, D-Hawaii.
Regardless of their long shot chances of winning the congressional seat in the fall, the GOP candidates are being scrutinized due to Trump’s decision last year to call the district home.
Loomer’s campaign manager is Karen Giorno, who was a senior political adviser to the Trump campaign in 2016. She said the president’s team wants the congressional seat – which Frankel has held since 2013 – to go red.
“I have a very cordial and very active relationship with the Trump campaign for reelection. It was a directive not from the president, but on behalf of the president, he wanted this district flipped,” Giorno said. “That’s his home district. He deserves to have someone represent him, not impeach him.”
The White House declined to comment on who the president supports in the race. But earlier this year, he retweeted a post promoting Loomer’s candidacy.
Voters here are now trying to sort through the crowded field.
“You’ve got a couple there that are a little loony tunes, at least on the surface anyway,” said voter Rhona Hayes, 71, of her choices in the Republican primary. “But I’m looking beyond that. There are some good candidates too.”
Hayes and her husband Charles, 85, retirees who live in Boynton Beach, said they’re most impressed with Aaron Scanlan, a former police officer and Air Force veteran.
“You’ve got some unusual candidates here,” said Charles Hayes, a retired firefighter.
Scanlan currently has the lowest amount of cash on hand – $1,863 out of the $91,285 he raised – and said his plans for fundraising were crimped by the pandemic. He’s trying to reach voters just like Hayes and her husband.
“This is my first time in politics, and I’m just trying to get my name out there,” said Scanlan, who is now a Realtor.
Loomer, 27, is the front-runner in fundraising. She’s raised $1,161,622 and spent $924,059. Her donors include Alex Jones, the far-right conspiracy theorist who, like Loomer, has also been banned from Twitter and other platforms.
While most of her fellow candidates address Florida-specific issues, such as clean waterways, Loomer focuses on topics such as Big Tech. She has been a no-show at most of the forums and debates sponsored by community organizations in the district where voters get to know the candidates.
She did appear at the annual Lobsterfest, sponsored by the Republican Party of Palm Beach County on Aug. 9, where she was endorsed by Roger Stone and Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Fla., both Trump allies. She said those endorsements, along with support from Fox News host Jeanine Pirro and other marquee names in the Republican Party, help to make her the front-runner.
“It’s laughable to think that President Trump would consider, or even look, or waste his time considering any of these other candidates, because they’re just not viable,” Loomer said. “They’re not Trumpian.”
Loomer, who is from Arizona but went to college in Miami at Barry University, said she’s lived in Florida for nearly three years and considers herself a Floridian. She said she wants to replace Lois Frankel because, among other things, Frankel supports Black Lives Matter.
Candidate Reba Sherrill is part of Trump’s “bridge family,” the fans who show up at the bridge near Mar-a-Lago to wave to Trump’s motorcade when he’s in town. She’s also Trump’s neighbor on Palm Beach and a familiar sight on Ocean Drive.
“Every day I roll my wheelchair numerous times in front of Mar-a-Lago and pause and salute the flag,” Sherrill said – referring to the large American flag Trump has on his property.
Sherrill, a health and wellness consultant, is self-funding her campaign. She donated $350,102 to the effort.
Sherrill is supported by people who promote QAnon, identified by the FBI as a group with “anti-government, identity-based and fringe political conspiracy theories” that may motivate violent extremists. Sherrill’s main issue in the campaign is fighting child trafficking, which matches with QAnon theories that rampant pedophilia rings have infiltrated the United States.
Sherrill said she worries about a “new world order” and globalism as well as sex trafficking.
“I felt like I really didn’t have a choice,” Sherrill said about running for Congress. “It’s my civic duty. The country is a mess right now.”
Elizabeth Felton said she’s running to protect property rights. She owns a business called Safari Bob’s, which offers field trips and “encounters” with wild animals such as foxes and ring tailed lemurs. She said regulations pushed by animal rights groups infringe on citizens.
“Property rights are personal rights,” Felton said. “The mainstream media treats you like a lunatic if you want to own a pet monkey.”
She worked as an exotic dancer at a club in New York for 10 years before her move to Florida because as a single mother, she needed a job with a flexible schedule.
Felton’s is running on other issues: term limits – “six years, and then you’re out,” and support of the legalization of marijuana the federal level and LGBTQ rights.
She acknowledges that the slate of candidates is an interesting one. She and four of her opponents – but not Loomer – call each other often and are cordial and agree on most issues, she said, including their support for Trump.
“Most of us get along,” Felton said. “Put us all together, we’re almost the perfect candidate.”
Felton said she and fellow candidate Michael Vilardi talk on the phone almost daily. Vilardi owns a tax business, and was a criminal investigator with the IRS. Vilardi, who has raised the lowest amount of money in the race – $56,494 – said he’s running to change the rules for Social Security recipients.
“Let’s start with Social Security,” Vilardi said. “These old people are getting robbed.”
He said he’d push for a change in tax laws that he thinks are unfair to the elderly. He also supports term limits.
While Loomer has garnered big-name endorsements from the far-right, Christian Acosta, the sixth candidate in the field, has some Trump-adjacent support as well. Acosta is a former nuclear engineer who now teaches at Palm Beach State College. Toni Holt Kramer hosted a fundraising dinner for Acosta at Trump International Golf Club in West Palm Beach in February. Kramer is one of the founders of the Trumpettes, a group of Trump super fans that throws a gala at Mar-a-Lago every year for the president.
“It was the first one to get in the race. I got pretty crowded pretty quick,” said Acosta, whose issues are immigration reform, support for community colleges and vocational education, among others. “It’s been an interesting race.”