In GOP primary for North Florida congressional seat, guns play a central role for most candidates

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Posted August 3, 2020 | By Bill Thompson, Deputy Editor

Republican voters in the 3rd Congressional District, including more than 43,000 of them in Marion County, have plenty of homework to do ahead of the Aug. 18 primary.

Ten GOP candidates are vying for their votes in seeking to take over for Rep. Ted Yoho, the Gainesville Republican who leaves Congress in January to fulfill a pledge to serve just four terms.

But those voters will have no doubt about where anyone in the field stands on one issue: guns.

Nine of the 10 feature an ad or other campaign promotional material extolling their position on guns, often with them carrying or firing guns.

For example, Kat Cammack, who managed Yoho’s 2012 upset campaign over longtime Republican Congressman Cliff Stearns of Ocala, recently released her first video ad. The 30-second spot ends with Cammack, who also had been a longtime senior aide to Yoho, holding a shotgun on her right shoulder.      

Ryan Chamberlin, an author and business consultant, ended his first video ad with him knotting his tie. As he draws it tight, Chamberlin says, “And they (liberals) think every one of us is carrying a gun.” Chamberlin’s wife then enters the screen, and says, “Here’s you gun, honey,” as she hands him a pistol, to which he adds, “I don’t know why.”

Todd Chase, a retired U.S. Navy pilot and former Gainesville city commissioner, posted under the “priorities” section of his website his position on the Second Amendment. The photo shows Chase aiming a bolt-action rifle in a gun store, while the text notes his weapons training in the Navy and that he is a member of the National Rifle Association.

Bill Engelbrecht, owner of Florida First Care, which provides senior citizens with nursing and rehabilitation services, first describes his background in an 84-second post on his campaign’s Facebook page. Then, the first issue-related image to appear is a photo of an AR-15 and a pistol, plus ammunition for each. Engelbrecht then says, “In this Republican primary every candidate is pro-gun.”

Joe Dallas Millado, a business consultant who spent seven years as a legislative aide for Stearns and also GOP Congressman Gus Bilirakis, offers the Second Amendment as the first issue on his campaign website. That section features a photo of a suit-clad Millado at an event aiming what appears to be a vintage M-1 rifle that the U.S. military used primarily during World War II and the Korean War.

Gavin Rollins, a Clay County commissioner and a captain in the Florida Army National Guard, features on his campaign website a 30-second video in which he carries a rifle that resembles the M-4 model used by the military. At the end of the ad, he slaps the magazine into the weapon and unleashes a burst that utterly obliterates an unseen target.

Judson Sapp, CEO of a family-owned company offering services to railroad companies, is shown in his campaign video ad carrying a single-barrel shotgun as he strolls alongside another man through a wooded area. The image is similar to one on his campaign website. In the ad, the announcer notes that Sapp, is “A-rated by the NRA.”

James St. George, a doctor who specializes in radiology and vascular care, does more than carry his single-barrel shotgun in his campaign commercial. The video opens with St. George saying he’s “a doctor, not a politician,” and then that he is an “NRA-certified marksman.” He then proceeds to blow from the sky several skeets representing liberal policies he opposes.

David Theus, a financial services consultant to owners of small businesses, prefers relaying his message through long-form videos, lasting between 10 minutes and 44 minutes, on his campaign Facebook page. He doesn’t pose with a firearm in these videos, but his literature notes that he believes in the Second Amendment. On his campaign’s Facebook site, Theus includes a photo of a man holding a pistol with a quote from him: “Our Founders knew firsthand that Tyranny stood ready outside their door – only to steal their Persons, Property, and Liberty at the end of a barrel.”

The exception to the thread lacing these candidates together on this issue is Amy Pope Wells, a former critical care nurse and now a business owner.

Wells directly counters her gun-toting rivals. On her website she places support for the Second Amendment at the top of her issues. But in an 86-second campaign video on YouTube she takes direct aim at some of the other candidates who promote guns. “You’re not going to see me walking slowly, draping a gun over my shoulder, in a desperate effort to make you think I’m pro Second Amendment,” Wells says in the video. “I live in the country. Guns are an everyday part of life for us. It’s not an act.”

Aubrey Jewett, a political science professor at the University of Central Florida, suggested that by and large Republicans are the pro-Second Amendment party, while Democrats are the gun-control party.

And while most Republican primary voters would expect their candidates to back the Second Amendment, those who fail to demonstrate it risk being labeled as “soft,” Jewett said. Thus, guns remain a potent issue in many Republican primaries.

Additionally, the gun issue has now taken on even more importance for many GOP voters. Gun sales have soared across the country and in Florida over the past few months, Jewett noted, as many people feel very anxious about their personal safety due to the pandemic, the Black Lives Matter protests and the upcoming election.

“Most Republican candidates in more rural conservative districts will fight to get an endorsement from the NRA and heavily publicize their pro-Second Amendment views. If a GOP candidate fails to make it clear that they are strongly supportive of gun rights, then they may sink their own chance of winning the race. Thus, during the primary, running an ad carrying or even discharging a weapon is a quick visual to remind those conservative Republican voters that the GOP candidates are in sync with their views on guns,” Jewett said in an email.

Jewett said it remains to be seen if Wells’ play pans out.

“It will be a risky strategy not running ads showcasing her support for guns. Although, with so many candidates running, perhaps the other nine will split the vote among the large number of pro-gun voters and she will be able to assemble a winning coalition from a much smaller pool of Republican voters who do not care as much about the gun issue.”

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