Florida Rep. Brian Mast would have moved the fish tank into his Rayburn office differently.
“I would have gotten these guys a wheelie cart and sloshed it down the hallway, with whatever fish were still in there,” he said, nodding to a nearby aide.
There’s a lot this freshman Republican says he wants to do his own way, and if he follows through, his independent streak may complicate Democratic efforts to unseat him in 2018.
Mast is most comfortable sitting at a large desk in the corner of his office. His shaved head is almost perfectly framed by a large American flag draped behind him, and from his vantage point, the fish tank — still without fish in mid-March after being drained for the move — is directly across the room from him.
The so-called congressional aquarium is sponsored by the Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institute Foundation, a Florida nonprofit located in the 18th District, and it’s been passed down to each member who’s represented this Treasure Coast seat. (Rep. Tom Rooney has one too since he used to represent the area.)
For two terms, Democratic Rep. Patrick Murphy was the keeper of the giant tank now in Mast’s office. He vacated the seat for a failed Senate bid last year, but he won his previous races here by 20 points in 2014 and less than a point in 2012. President Barack Obama carried the district narrowly in 2008, as did Mitt Romney in 2012.
But the 18th district shifted further to the right last year. President Donald Trump carried it by 9 points, according to calculations by Daily Kos Elections. In a toss-up election, Mast defeated an erratic Democratic self-funder by 11 points.
Because of its swings, the 18th is a Democratic target next year. But Democrats acknowledge that they’ll need the right candidate to run against Mast, a double amputee with some moderate positions and a war hero story that made it into the New York Times before he’d even won his seven-way GOP primary.
“The question becomes, is he able to maintain it or is the pressure of Congress going to turn him into a hardcore partisan?” said Florida Democratic strategist Steve Schale.
Charting his own path
Mast isn’t sure what happened to the fish, but he’s been told he needs to wait a few weeks for the water to settle before new ones arrive.
That this freshman has a fish tank in his office is appropriate for a Republican concerned about climate change. He even made an analogy out of it when describing humanity’s ability to manipulate an ecosystem.
Mast’s independence is becoming part of his political brand. He drops terms like “maverick approach,” when describing his differences with his party on climate change.
He’s opposed to eliminating the EPA, but like other Republicans, he believes federal agencies exert too much control over people’s lives.
And this is where Mast’s rhetoric veers into campaign mode.
“We go out there and we ask the American people, constantly, to do more with less — to tighten their belts,” he said. “If that statement should be made anywhere, it should be made to the federal government.”
When some Republicans were calling on Attorney General Jeff Sessions to recuse himself from investigations related to the 2016 campaign, Mast was one of the few Republicans to use the other R-word. He said Sessions should resign if he didn’t recuse himself.
“I will be a transparency hawk for as long as I’m here, for whomever it is,” Mast said.
Welcome to Washington
But three months into his time in Washington, Mast was faced with allegations that he may not have been so transparent.
After Mast was appointed to the advisory board of a Florida marketing company last year, the company donated $5,000 to his campaign. That same company is under investigation for defrauding clients of millions of dollars, according to Politico, which broke the story.
Mast appears in a promotional video for the firm but he told Politico that he didn’t know he’d been made a board member and had only met the company’s owner briefly. His campaign promised to return the check.
For now, the incident seems to have blown over, but for a freshman lawmaker whose personal story has earned him largely positive press, the negative attention was a new experience.
“People automatically put a slanted light on you,” he said. “That’s different for me.”
Mast is a product of his military background.
It influences the way he acts. And it shapes his appearance. A roadside bomb in Afghanistan ripped off his legs. With the help of a cane, he walks everywhere around the Capitol on two prosthetics.
But it also shapes his rhetoric, and potentially, his political clout. The night before last Friday’s scheduled health care vote, he addressed the GOP conference.
“I’ve just never been in a battle that we only had to fire one shot. I’ve never been in a battle with a perfect plan,” he said. “And even being able to say that — we won every single one of them, because of that unanimity, our ability to win together as a unit,” he told his colleagues, some of whom grew emotional.
Mast started out undecided, but in the end, he was leaning strongly toward supporting the bill, falling in line with the administration and GOP leadership.
Democrats’ best shot at taking out Mast in 2018 is for him to hew close to his party and lose that perception of moderation.
“I expect, given that he was a disciplined candidate, he will be a disciplined member,” Schale said. “For us, it’s finding a candidate that fits the district right and seeing what the lay of the land looks like.”
Murphy has been making noises lately, although it’s not clear what office he’s after. Jonathan Chane, who lost last cycle’s Democratic primary, may run again, as could a handful of local officials.
Especially if Trump’s popularity dips and if constituents remain engaged — hundreds confronted Mast at a town hall — Democrats see the seat flipping. But with other competitive districts in the area, it remains to be seen how high a priority Mast’s district will be next year.