By DARA KAM
THE NEWS SERVICE OF FLORIDA
Four months ago, state Reps. Doug Broxson and Mike Hill said they were friends who intended to run a “civil” race for an open Senate seat in the Panhandle.
But weeks before the Aug. 30 primary that will almost certainly determine the winner of the Senate District 1 seat, the gloves are off in a brutal battle to replace outgoing Sen. Greg Evers, R-Baker.
The Senate district, which includes Santa Rosa, Escambia and portions of Okaloosa counties, abuts the Alabama border in one of the most conservative regions of the state.
Hill, 58, joined the Florida House in a special election in 2013. Broxson, 67, of Gulf Breeze, was elected to the House in 2010.
As with most Republican candidates in the Panhandle, Broxson and Hill are closely aligned on the issues. They’re both pro-guns and anti-abortion. They favor tax cuts and oppose the president’s health care overhaul known as “Obamacare.” They’re against illegal immigration and Common Core.
Professionally, the lawmakers are also connected: They’re both in the insurance business. And both men even attended the same church at one point.
But with absentee ballots already in the mail and early voting starting Monday in Santa Rosa County, the race has taken a nasty tone.
Hill is painting Broxson as a “liberal” who is “colluding with Tallahassee special interests” in his election effort.
Broxson’s campaign is accusing Hill of fraud regarding a homestead exemption he claims on a home in Pensacola.
In recent interviews, both men blamed each other for the mudslinging.
“When someone carelessly paints you different than you are, and knows that his voting record is almost identical to yours, it takes time and energy to kind of unravel that image. That’s what we’re doing. It’s unfortunate,” Broxson said.
Hill has branded Broxson as a liberal for supporting a $250 million economic incentives package — one of Gov. Rick Scott’s top priorities — that died in the Legislature during the session that ended in March. Broxson was also targeted by the Koch brothers-backed group Americans for Prosperity for voting for the incentives package.
Broxson joined Scott, who is overwhelmingly popular with voters in the area, in Gulf Breeze earlier this month at a jobs-related press conference. At the event, Scott, who hasn’t endorsed either candidate, praised Broxson for his efforts in helping to create jobs.
Broxson, who has outraised Hill by about a 2-to-1 margin, has the support of the Florida Chamber of Commerce — which gave both legislators an “A” grade for the 2016 session — and a political committee that has paid for mailers, radio and television ads critical of Hill’s opposition to the economic incentives package.
Hill, a veteran whose grandfather and father also served in the military and whose son is a Marine, is a tea party activist who is black but who quickly corrects anyone — including MSNBC host Joe Scarborough, who hails from Pensacola — who refers to him as “African-American.”
“I’m not African-American. I’m an American,” Hill says.
Broxson’s campaign has raised questions about Hill’s residence. Hill receives a homestead exemption for a home in Pensacola, but is registered to vote at a Pensacola Beach condo, which is also the address used on his financial disclosure form, according to documents provided by Broxson’s campaign.
When asked about the homestead exemption issue, Hill responded with a text message accusing “Dirty Doug Broxson” and his supporters of stopping “at nothing to try to destroy my conservative values.”
“I don’t know what that means. How can you destroy someone’s conservative values? I’m not out to destroy anybody. What is he talking about? He’s running an ad that says I’m a liberal,” Broxson said.
Hill also said in the text message that he has not been notified of any complaint from the property appraiser, “but will review it” if it should arise.