TALLAHASSEE — Alleged murder threats. Court battles. Stinging attacks between rival Republicans.
In a race that the GOP views as one of its best pickup opportunities in Florida, things are getting messy. And it doesn’t look like an endorsement from former President Donald Trump will change that.
“A lot of embarrassing drama” is how Audrey Henson, who is vying for Florida’s open 13th congressional district, summarizes what’s been going on.
Henson, a former CEO of a nonprofit who also helps run a construction business, is one of three GOP candidates competing for the seat. The slate also includes Anna Paulina Luna, an Air Force veteran and former model with ties to MAGA world, and Amanda Makki, an attorney and former aide to U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska). The latter two both ran in the GOP primary for the seat in 2020, with Luna edging Makki before ultimately losing to Democratic Rep. Charlie Crist.
The battle was thrown wide open after Crist opted against running for re-election and is instead mounting a bid for governor. Crist’s departure started a scramble for both parties, even as the district is destined to change when Florida legislators adopt a new congressional map in early 2022.
While several Democrats are running in the race, it’s the Republican side that’s grabbing most of the attention so far — and not just because Trump offered an early endorsement.
The ongoing question is whether the sharp Republican infighting — which now includes St. Petersburg, a one-time retirement haven that evolved into a more artsy community — will jeopardize a chance for Republicans to grab back a seat that had been in their column for more than four decades until a court-ordered redistricting changed its contours in 2016.
Luna made headlines this summer when she alleged that her potential Republican rivals were plotting to kill her. And at one point, she suggested Makki was also involved in the scheme — leading Makki to call Luna “unstable” and pledge that she will spend the primary exposing Luna as a “phony” for once supporting Barack Obama.
Amid this increasingly bitter backdrop, Luna gained an important ally when Trump earlier this month endorsed her following a 45-minute sit-down between the two at Trump’s resort in Bedminster.
But Trump’s blessing did little to scare off other Republicans. Instead, it led to recriminations and finger pointing, including from long-time Trump ally Roger Stone, who predicted that Trump would rescind his endorsement once he learned more about Luna.
“I can’t imagine who might have urged the president to endorse such a person and wonder if he knows what happens when someone hasn’t told the president the whole truth leading to an action — where he might get embarrassed for not knowing all the facts,” Stone wrote in a scathing online piece. Stone said in an email that he’s not professionally involved in the race but has backed another potential candidate for the race. Stone’s friend, Matt Tito, was also cited by Luna’s initial injunction filing as someone who may also be part of the plot against her.
The decision by the GOP contenders to prolong an ugly political fight isn’t surprising given the anticipation that the seat is winnable for Republicans — and will likely remain that way after state legislators redraw the district in early 2022.
Crist, a former governor who started his political career in Pinellas County as a Republican, won the seat by six percentage points over Luna just last year. President Joe Biden, who lost Florida overall, edged Trump by four points in the district.
“This was never a safe seat,” said Matthew Isbell, a Democratic data consultant who envisions a scenario where the seat — which is currently underpopulated — is reconfigured so that it’s even more of a tossup. “As long as Republicans don’t nominate a completely unhinged person they have a shot.”
But Makki has labeled Luna as “irresponsible” and “dangerous” for contending her rivals were scheming to murder her.
Luna first made the allegations when she filed for an injunction against William Braddock, a little-known candidate who briefly ran for the 13th District seat before he dropped out. Luna made her allegation against Braddock based in part on a tape recording where Braddock told a conservative activist that he would get a “Russian and Ukrainian hit squad” to make her disappear.
Makki got wrapped into the allegation because of text messages where Braddock contended that Makki would help him “take her out.” But Makki said she doesn’t know him and calls the effort to rope her into the case “crazy.”
A circuit judge last week said Luna could not issue a permanent injunction against Braddock because there was only one documented case of harassment. But the judge warned Braddock that his actions were “inappropriate” and “offensive,” according to media reports about the hearing.
Luna called the result “shocking” but said the evidence showed why she took the threat seriously.
Makki contends that Luna’s background — which includes changing her last name two years ago and her previous statements of support for Obama — was not fully known when Luna won the primary after picking up support from Trump stalwarts.
“The primary voters last year did not know who the real Anna Paulina Luna was,” said Makki, who, like Stone, predicts that Trump will rescind his endorsement once he finds out more about her. "They didn’t know her name. They didn’t know her background. This time they are going to know who she really is."
Luna scoffs at the idea that Trump will abandon her down the line.
“Regardless of what these people say, the president will not change his endorsement of me,” Luna said. “I will be right next to him every step of the way.”
Luna also blasted rival Makki as someone who is “not a team player” in the effort to help flip the district to Republicans and instead was resorting to name-calling.
“If President Trump endorsed anyone over me, I would drop out,” Luna said.
Makki's past connection to Murkowski would likely be viewed as a strike against her in Trump world, but she insists that she is a loyal supporter and noted that she assisted legal efforts challenging Biden’s win in Wisconsin right after the 2020 election. Trump in June endorsed a challenger to Murkowski, who was one of seven Republican senators to vote to remove the president during his second impeachment trial.
As the acrimony has ramped up between Makki and Luna, Henson joined the race. Her timing was less than ideal and came just days before Trump endorsed Luna. Her selling point is that unlike Makki and Luna — both of whom moved to Pinellas County in the last few years — she’s a long-time resident of Pinellas County and a business owner.
She said she wants “nothing to do” with the drama surrounding the race, but added she is not dissuaded by Trump’s endorsement of Luna.
“I’m fully supportive of the president,” Henson said. “I’ve already talked to 2,000 voters in last 17 days. They want someone who is going to put Pinellas first. That’s what the race is about.”
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