A Black Navy veteran could topple the Republican incumbent, an Army veteran, in her red Florida district
By LATESHIA BEACHUM | The Washington Post | Published: September 2, 2020
Pam Keith was sitting in her 2013 Lexus RX hybrid on Aug. 18 when her phone wouldn't stop buzzing. She knew it was about the results of her primary run for Florida's 18th Congressional District — a race she ran and lost in 2018.
The retired naval judge advocate-turned-aspiring Florida politician was on her way to a small campaign event where she would meet up with her supporters no matter the outcome.
When she got the courage to pick up the phone, it was her senior adviser, Roosevelt ,on the other end.
"Congratulations, boss lady," he said, according to Keith in an interview with The Washington Post.
"That's when I knew I won," Keith said.
Keith had grasped 80% of the vote — a surprise to her — against her opponent and former Florida deputy solicitor general Oz Vazquez. Vazquez had raised more than $450,000 to Keith's $282,000-plus, and nabbed the endorsement of former U.S. Rep. Patrick Murphy, D, and other influential unions and political action committees.
The current climate of a pandemic and protests against police brutality set a table for an African American veteran to represent a heavily Republican district, which credible political forecasters are now calling a "toss-up."
In an unexpected turn, being a Black woman has worked in Keith's favor as the country grapples with policies often rooted in racism and examines who is being allowed to create them in the first place.
This is Keith's third time running for an office that she hopes to occupy, but her previous unsuccessful bids weren't staged in a socially distanced world where race conversations were at the top of the country's consciousness.
She was in Washington, D.C., helping her parents during the initial months that covid-19 spread throughout the country when she kept receiving calls from people asking her to run.
"No one had ever asked me to run before," she said. "But it fed the dissatisfaction and disquiet in me, the sense of unfinished business."
A call with longtime political strategist Joe Trippi solidified that she would run for a third time and his firm equipped her with a campaign manager willing to go to Florida as its coronavirus cases surged, she said.
Keith beefed up her team to include people with more-specialized skill sets who didn't need to be based in Florida and with those who were able to assist in her weak areas, she said.
She might have also been aided by the name recognition she earned after jumping in headfirst into a 2016 Senate race, placing her name on the ballot for a 2018 House race and losing both, according to Florida Democratic strategist Steve Schale.
Schale told The Post that he had advised Keith years ago to run for a smaller office before launching into a federal election because it's hard to run for Congress in a state like Florida without a city commission or state legislature term on a résumé.
Fundraising will be a similar issue for Keith this time around, he said, but her recent primary win might lend itself to money from the party establishment — something she lacked in 2018 when Democrats were biting their lips bloody trying to gain more seats in Congress.
Her opponent in that cycle, former Obama administration adviser Lauren Baer, had also outraised her and received support from major party players, such as the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, NARAL Pro-Choice America and EMILY's List.
Baer lost to Brian Mast by fewer than 30,000 votes.
"It's one of those districts that's uphill but not impossible," Schale said. "Democrats have held it this decade . . . It's certainly not impossible."
Keith sees her military service as an equalizer to Mast, who served in the U.S. Army for more than 12 years and often uses that as a basis for his credibility for being a leader, she said.
Mast lost both his legs and an index finger after stepping on an explosive device in 2010 in Afghanistan.
"The military is not magnification for machismo and bravado because that's often the way it's portrayed in the right," she said, listing the various types of people who serve. "I think that having a woman veteran really sort of destabilizes that and is subversive to that narrative."
Keith said she spoke to many of her donors who had committed their dollars to supporting a Black woman running for office because they had been awakened by the Black Lives Matter movement.
"I think we cannot discount the Black Lives Matter movement as contributory to this moment because the underlying assertion of the BLM movement is not only about policing even though its brought up," Keith said. "It's about co-ownership about rights and privileges of our constitution. . . . They are inherently co-owned and that's what it looks like when you see a Black woman veteran."
White people are 81% of the district's population, and Black and Asian people are about 12% and 2% respectively.
"These were not Black donors," she pointed out. "These were Jewish grannies and others. That was validating."
Validation was something she didn't feel from the greater Democratic Party in her last run, but it's a familiar feeling for Black female candidates running for office who run into what Keith calls the "viability vortex," where money becomes reliant on one's ability to get institutional party support to raise more money and vice versa.
But 2020 could be the year of amplifying Black voices, particularly Black women's voices, for office as one of her more notable endorsers, Cori Bush, knows all too well.
Activist Bush beat incumbent Rep. William Lacy Clay in her primary, ousting the longtime congressman with her progressive platform by more than 4,600 votes this month. She ran against well-backed Clay in 2018 in Missouri's 1st district and lost by slightly more than 28,500 votes.
She's thrown her momentum behind Keith and her platform.
"As an attorney, as a community leader, and as a veteran, Pam Keith FL has a proven track record of standing up for the person who doesn't always have a seat at the table," Bush said in her endorsement.
Keith is confident about her chances to beat Mast, who has already run an ad painting her as a leftist radical. She's responded in her own ad that he's just another version of President Donald Trump.
Mast campaign spokesperson Brad Stewart told The Post in a statement that Mast believes the district is better off without Keith's "hateful rhetoric."
"How can she look Republican voters in the eye and ask for their votes after she's made clear she thinks they're 'stupid' and 'racist,' " Stewart said.
Mast is swirling in social media controversy after old comments surfaced in which he joked about rape and having sex with 15-year-old girls with a man who is now his campaign manager, the Sun-Sentinel reported. Mast apologized for his comments and said he was ashamed to have them associated with his name while Keith derided his statements and called them a "betrayal to the women he claims to represent."
Keith had her own brush with controversial rape comments in March when she responded that now-Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden had "LOTS of rape to do to catch up to Trump" and doubted rape allegations against Biden, Tampa Bay Times reported.
Keith's best bet will be to be herself and to continue tying Mast to the Republican Party, which drives voters with fear, Mike Coleman, vice chair of the Palm Beach County Democratic Party, said.
Large grass-roots efforts and the sliver of undecided voters — not big money — will probably be deciding factors going into November, Coleman said.
The frenetic energy that would normally push volunteers to knock on doors for their preferred candidate is now being shifted to online chatter, where Keith's follower count dwarfs Mast's.
"I know the political inclination is to have the challenger deal with the incumbent, but the incumbent will have to deal with the challenger this time," Keith said.
Her optimism is one of the greatest signs of democracy, according to Schale.
"I've never met a candidate who thought they couldn't win their race," he said.