Florida’s panhandle is a conservative stronghold that reliably sends Republicans and the occasional centrist democrats to Congress. Because of that, conventional party distinctions don’t play out the same way they do in other parts of the country.
In a campaign ad, Greg Evers is standing in front of a blue tractor, brow furrowed, speaking directly to the camera.
“Our values are different around here,” he says, “If Washington were run by panhandle values our country would be in a better place.”
His qualifications float across the screen below him. The first one listed is “Lifetime NRA member.”
“We have enough lawyers in Washington,” Evers finishes, “Isn’t it time we sent a farmer with some common sense?”
In another ad one of his competitors Matt Gaetz argues, “We can’t trust the spineless politicians. We can’t trust the lawless bureaucrats.” Then a narrator takes over, “Conservative Matt Gaetz will fight to pass open carry, kill muslim terrorists and build the wall.”
Gaetz and Evers are running against one another for the Republican nomination in congressional District 1—they’ll face another six competitors on the primary ballot.
Both are state lawmakers—Evers in the Senate, Gaetz in the House. And both have championed controversial gun measures. Evers backed campus carry while Gaetz backed open carry.
Guns are a major political issue just next door in Congressional District 2, where Mary Thomas is one of three Republicans running to represent the 19 county district.
Last month she accepted the endorsement of Gun Owners of America.
“And I pledge to the people of District 2, and to the people of our country, that I will defend all of the constitution, including our second amendment,” Thomas said.
Steve Crapps is running in for the same seat and he’s a big proponent of gun rights as well.
The thing is, he’s a Democrat.
“The second amendment rights, I’m a strong believer in that, and I believe that you have the right to protect your family,” Crapps said at the Osceola Shooting Range just outside Lake City.
The standard playbook often paints Democrats as anti-gun, but in the panhandle that breaks down a bit.
“If you’re a legal, lawful citizen of the United States of America you have the right to have the gun of your choice,” Crapps says.
He wants more and better background checks with greater coordination between state and federal authorities. But he also wants to see universal reciprocity for concealed weapons licenses—so Florida license holders could carry concealed in places that don’t currently allow it.
Those policy proposals might not rack endorsements from national guns rights organizations, but they’re a far cry from the policies some gun owners fear.
“I shoot mainly my 22s, and everything because they’re economical,” Crapps says, “They’re called plinkering guns, just for plinkering, shooting cans just like me and granddaddy used to do. And I have my great-granddaddy’s [gun]—it’s one of my favorite ones—is my great granddaddy’s 22 Remington which was copied off of a Browning.”
Like Crapps, many candidates chalk up the area’s affinity for firearms to things like culture—heritage.
But there’s also location and raw numbers.
According to Pew Research the South is more gun friendly than many other regions, and District 1 and 2 are heavily white and rural—two demographic groups more likely to support gun rights.
For Steve Specht, a veteran and centrist democrat running in congressional District 1, there are practical considerations too.
“It is a mostly rural area,” he says. “I grew up in Marianna, which is the second congressional district. We lived 17 miles from town, we lived on forty acres, and we lived four people on a teacher’s salary.”
“You know, being able to hunt and take down a deer that’s basically a week’s pay worth of meat.”
Specht—like Matt Gaetz and Greg Evers—is a lifetime NRA member, but he’s not seeking the group’s endorsement. He’s disappointed about the NRA’s opposition to gun safety research and believes tax incentives could promote ownership of modern gun safes to reduce suicide, accidental discharges or theft. But most of all he thinks the current gun debate leaves too many Americans out.
“Responsible gun owners have been left out in this rhetoric,” Specht says. “You’ve got the NRA and other groups on one side that have basically stonewalled even commonsense legislation, and then on the far end of that you’ve got people that want to completely ban guns and get them out of society entirely, I don’t think either side speaks for the vast majority of Americans in the middle.”
When panhandle voters head to the polls in November, they are likely to favor a Republican—the Cook Political Report has District 1 down as solid Republican and District 2 right behind it as likely Republican. And protecting the Second Amendment will play a big role in how those voters cast their ballot.
But when it comes to firearms, voting Democrat or Republican seems to be a distinction without much difference.