Evers, Gaetz Poised For Panhandle Battle

Credit Florida Senate

TALLAHASSEE — In what could be one of the state's most hotly contested congressional primary battles, state Sen. Greg Evers said Monday he is running for an open Northwest Florida seat being vacated by veteran U.S. Rep. Jeff Miller.

Evers, a Baker Republican, enters an already-crowded GOP field, which includes state Rep. Matt Gaetz and James Zumwalt, an Iraq war veteran who also served as an aide to Miller.

After toying with the possibility of running for weeks, Evers on Saturday filed a statement of candidacy for Congressional District 1 with the Federal Elections Commission, setting up what could be a grudge match with fellow state legislator Gaetz, who announced his candidacy for the seat almost a month ago.

"After prayerful consideration, I'm humbled and honored to announce my candidacy for CD 1. Many of the residents of the Panhandle have asked me to run because we need someone that will uphold the Panhandle values in D.C. As a lifelong resident of the Panhandle, I'm ready to carry our message to D.C., just as Jeff Miller did," Evers told The News Service of Florida in a telephone interview Monday.

Evers, a 60-year-old farmer, said he intends to formally announce his entrance into the race at a press conference Tuesday morning in Milton.

Evers in 2001 won a special election for the state House, where he served until his election to the Senate in 2010.

The Northwest Florida district — one of the state's most conservative — abuts the Alabama border and spans Escambia, Okaloosa, Santa Rosa and Walton counties and includes most of Holmes County.

The winner of the Aug. 30 GOP primary is almost certain to go to Washington, and a match-up between Gaetz and Evers could result in the type of political slugfest that the Panhandle is known for. Gaetz has already raised more than $350,000, including putting more than $100,000 of his own money into the race.

But Evers, known among reporters for a droll wit delivered in a thick Southern drawl, didn't flinch when asked about Gaetz's campaign war chest.

"The last time I checked, it's the voters that elect, not dollars," he said.

The district includes five military installations, which could give Zumwalt a leg up in a region heavily populated by retired and active-duty military voters. According to his website, Zumwalt served two tours in Iraq and was awarded a Bronze Star and later served as an analyst at the Pentagon before becoming an adviser to Miller.

Evers stressed his commitment to veterans on Monday.

"I want to go to Washington and I want to fight for the veterans. So many have given so much, and some gave all. It's something that I'm extremely proud of, the veterans that I have represented over the years. I want to be their voice in Washington, as I was on the state level," he said.

Evers also said he wants to "fight for every citizen of the Panhandle," especially small business owners like himself.

"These are serious times and serious problems that we have, and it's not a time for political gamesmanship. It's a time for statesmanship, and a statesman to stand up and carry the light to Washington D.C," he said.

After representing the district for 15 years, Miller took the Florida political world by surprise in March when he announced he would not seek re-election in the fall. His retirement also set off a scramble for legislative seats, as Gaetz and Evers shifted from running state Senate campaigns to looking at runs for Congress. Matt Gaetz had planned to run for a Senate seat that his father, former Senate President Don Gaetz, R-Niceville, will leave this fall because of term limits.

Two Republican state representatives — Mike Hill of Pensacola Beach and Doug Broxson of Gulf Breeze — are poised to run for Evers's Senate District 1 seat, where, again, the August primary will almost certainly determine the general election winner.

Broxson said he intends to file his campaign paperwork for the Senate seat shortly after Evers makes a formal announcement Tuesday morning.

"We think we have a great chance of telling our story of why we should be (in the Senate) and we're looking forward to the process," Broxson, elected to the House in 2010, told the News Service in a telephone interview Monday.

Hill, the victor of a special election in 2013, said he intends to announce his candidacy for Senate "very soon."

Unlike what could be a brutal primary battle for the congressional seat, both men said they anticipate the race to replace Evers will be tamer.

"I think we're going to see very civil race. It's going to be highly contested. But Rep. Broxson and I are friends," Hill said in a telephone interview.

Hill, meanwhile, said that Zumwalt and other candidates' military experience could give them an advantage over the state legislators in the congressional match-up.

Gaetz could have a different edge, according to Broxson.

"The Gaetzes have a reputation of being able to raise massive amounts of dollars and I'm curious to see how Sen. Evers is going to match up the money campaign. I think he has pretty good polling information that says he should run. I'm going to be a spectator and see what they do and how they're going to handle their campaigns," he said. "Hopefully everyone would hope that it would be positive and they'll concentrate on their legislative successes, but my guess is it could be a pretty bloody battle."