The reverberations from a growing chasm between House Republican leaders and President Donald Trump loyalists can be felt these days in Pinellas County, where the two sides have picked opposing candidates in a primary for a coveted congressional seat.
On one side is Amanda Makki, who already knows her way around Washington. She began her career on the Hill as a Congressional staffer before finding success a lobbyist. Makki, 42, has the backing of top House Republicans, including Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy and his No. 2, Minority Whip Steve Scalise.
On the other side is Anna Paulina Luna, a U.S. Air Force veteran-turned-conservative media personality who introduced herself to District 13 voters by firing a military-style weapon at targets and declaring in a video, “I’m sure as hell not a politician.” Luna, 31, is endorsed by U.S. Rep. Matt Gaetz, one of Trump’s closest allies in Congress.
Both are vying for a chance to take on U.S. Rep. Charlie Crist, D-St. Petersburg, in November. It has attracted the second most money of any Florida Congressional race this cycle, according to the campaign finance watchdog OpenSecrets.org.
The results of Tuesday’s primary in Florida’s 13th Congressional District could be seen as a proxy in the ongoing struggle within the GOP between the old guard and new wave of Trump insurgents. However, this is not a two person race; also on the ballot are George Buck, the party’s nominee in 2018 who maintains a strong local following, and Sheila Griffin, the secretary of the Pinellas County GOP.
Nevertheless, the primary has put the two factions of the party against each other during an already acrimonious summer for House Republicans. Gaetz last month blasted U.S. Rep. Liz Cheney, the chair of the House Republican Conference, for trying to oust fellow Republican U.S. Rep. Thomas Massie. Gaetz and Trump’s son, Donald Trump, Jr., called on Cheney to step down.
Gaetz, who represents a conservative Fort Walton Beach district, said he wants Luna in Washington to help him win these battles. He will join Luna on Friday for a “Demonstration Against Socialism” in Largo.
“Anna Paulina Luna is not running to be part of the Washington establishment. Anna is going to come to Washington to challenge some of the assumptions our leadership makes, not to just rubber stamp their decisions,” Gaetz told the Times. “Amanda Makki knows the lobbyist game, Luna doesn’t want to play that game. There are too many already that go along to get along.”
Makki disputed Gaetz’s assessment of her. While Makki is quick to tout the backing of House leadership on the campaign trail, she has also affirmed she is firmly in Trump’s corner.
“With all due respect to Congressman Gaetz, whom I agree with on our conservative principles and most issues, I could not disagree with him more on this assertion,” Makki said in a statement.
Buck said he has the support of local pro-Trump organizations and added: “I don’t want those other endorsements because I am endorsed by the people. I also have not received any PAC, lobbyist, or special interest money. I am fully-funded by the grassroots.” He called Makki and Luna “two impostors (who) just moved here last year to run for office.”
Makki and Luna are certainly new faces. Luna said she ended up in St. Petersburg last year because of her husband’s military order. Makki said she moved here five years ago, though she worked for a D.C. lobbyist until 2019 and was unknown locally until she started campaigning for Congress. Neither has run for elected office before.
They also both bring something that the Republican caucus is severely lacking: diversity. Makki emigrated to the United States from Iran as a young child to escape religious persecution. She would be the only foreign-born Republican in Congress if elected. Luna is Hispanic and experienced poverty and living near gang warfare during her childhood in California, she said. Meanwhile, Griffin’s long shot bid, if successful, would make her just the second black Republican woman ever elected to Congress.
Not many policy differences between Makki and Luna have emerged during the primary fight, which has been curbed significantly by the coronavirus. Instead, the race has largely hinged on style, background and endorsements.
In forums, Makki has appeared polished and her network television ads have brought her into the living rooms of more Pinellas County voters, but she has faced persistent criticism from rivals for her career before entering elective politics. Makki spent seven years working for Sen. Lisa Murkowski, the Alaska Republican who has emerged as one of Trump’s sharpest critics from within the GOP. She left in 2014 to become a lobbyist for the pharmaceutical company Novo Norodisk before joining the lobbying firm K&L Gates.
But her familiarity with that world has come in handy in the money race. Makki has raised $1.2 million with the vast majority coming in the form of contributions greater than $200, according to OpenSecrets.org. She has received $143,000 from Political Action Committees. In addition to House leadership, she has support from well-established conservative groups like the American Conservative Union and FreedomWorks.
Buck and Luna have also raised nearly $1 million, though they have many more donors who made small contributions.
Crist, meanwhile, has raised $2.1 million with more than $3 million saved up for the general election fight.
To reach out to District 13 Republicans, Luna has leaned on the conservative media network where she grew her social media brand as an outspoken supporter of the president. She once had to apologize for calling Hillary Clinton “herpes” during a Fox News appearance. Prior to this race, Luna had a stint as as director of Hispanic Engagement at Turning Points USA, the pro-Trump young conservative group founded by Charlie Kirk. Kirk has endorsed Luna, as have Students for Trump and former St. Petersburg Mayor Bill Foster.
The limited polling in the race has shown Makki in the lead, followed by Buck and Luna. But that poll was taken more than a month ago. Since then, a fifth candidate, Sharon Newby, has dropped out of the race and endorsed Luna.