How the 'QAnon factor' is playing out in Florida's GOP primaries
In Tuesday’s Republican primary elections in Florida, dozens of candidates will be seeking the party’s nomination for its 27 congressional seats. At least seven of them, including two who are running in President Trump’s home district, have, to varying degrees, embraced or promoted content related to QAnon — the internet-based conspiracy theory that has been deemed a potential domestic terrorist threat by the FBI.
The candidates seeking Republican nominations in the Sunshine State are part of a growing list of 2020 primary and general election hopefuls who have been linked to QAnon, a loose movement of people who believe, or claim to believe, in secret, cryptic messages posted online since 2017 by a government official, or officials, known as “Q.” It is premised on “a covert effort, led by President Trump, to dismantle a conspiracy involving ‘deep state’ actors and global elites allegedly engaged in an international child sex trafficking ring,” according to the FBI.
A spokesperson for the National Republican Congressional Committee, which works to elect Republicans to the House of Representatives, did not respond to a request for comment from Yahoo News on the number of GOP candidates in Florida, and around the country, who’ve promoted the conspiracy theory. Last week the president congratulated Marjorie Taylor Greene, an outspoken QAnon proponent, on her win in the Republican primary runoff in a heavily Republican Georgia congressional district.
Despite the surge of QAnon-linked candidates seeking federal office this year, two Washington Post surveys taken in 2018 and again this past June suggest that support for QAnon among voters in Florida and nationwide has remained relatively low among members of both parties. Though QAnon is often referred to as a “far-right” conspiracy theory, the Post’s more recent survey of voters nationwide found that above-average levels of conspiracy thinking are “strongly correlated with positive views of QAnon, regardless of the survey respondent’s partisanship.”
21st Congressional District: Reba Sherrill and Elizabeth Felton
While pretty much all of Florida’s QAnon-linked congressional hopefuls have built their campaign platforms around the core tenet of supporting Trump, those running in Florida’s 21st Congressional District, which covers Palm Beach — home to Trump’s official residence at Mar-a-Lago — are competing to literally represent the president in Congress.
The predominantly blue 21st District, which also includes West Palm Beach, Boynton Beach and Delray Beach, is currently represented by Democratic Rep. Lois Frankel, who faces a primary challenge from Guido Weiss, a former adviser to Rep. Tulsi Gabbard, D-Hawaii.
Reba Sherrill is one of six candidates seeking the Republican nomination. A self-described health and wellness advocate, she is a neighbor of Trump’s in Palm Beach and part of a cohort of supporters who regularly gather near Mar-a-Lago to wave at the president’s motorcade when he’s in town. A photograph of Sherrill grinning with Trump is displayed prominently on the website of her largely self-funded campaign, which lists among its top platform issues the “blight on humanity” caused by vaccines and “human trafficking” of children by unnamed predators who, per her website, harvest the organs of aborted babies in order to “beat and torture them, to rape them, to murder them, and yes even eat their flesh.”
Earlier this year, Sherrill was interviewed by a QAnon supporter on YouTube about her attendance at a “Great Awakening” rally for Q followers in Tampa. “I’ve been following Q since the beginning,” Sherrill said in the video, which is featured on her campaign website, along with several other YouTube interviews that also refer to her as a “pro Anon” or “Qteam candidate.”
Over the last 24 hours or so, Sherrill has posted a series of tweets with the hashtag #WWG1WGA, a widely used abbreviation of the QAnon slogan “Where we go one we go all.”
“I’m openly identifying myself as a Q patriot,” Sherrill told Yahoo News over the phone Monday, seeking to differentiate herself from “Q” and “QAnons.” “Q,” she explained, refers to the source of the online posts, who, “from what we understand, is not just a person but a group of people that is military intelligence.”
“QAnons,” she continued, “are the people who anonymously read these posts, and they decipher them, decode them and see what exactly they think they mean.
“I would say I’m not a QAnon because I’m not anonymous,” she said.
Sherrill complained about “people in mainstream media who are trying to paint people who talk about human trafficking and child sex trafficking as being some kind of crazy lunatics,” insisting, “This is not a conspiracy, this is reality. It’s not some fictitious thing.”
Sherrill noted that she lives in Palm Beach, not far from Jeffrey Epstein’s house, and said she “personally got caught up in [child sex trafficking] a couple different times as a child, and human trafficking as an adult, so I know firsthand these things are real.”
“I don’t get into conspiracy theories,” she said. “I’m a conspiracy realist.”
Sherrill isn’t the only candidate in Trump’s home district who appears to be courting the QAnon vote. Fellow Republican primary contender Elizabeth Felton, who’s running as a proponent of property rights and deregulation, has used the hashtags “#Q” and “#qanonarmy” along with others promoting the related Pizzagate conspiracy theory on at least three videos posted to her TikTok account in the last month.
According to the Washington Post, the 49-year-old Felton, who owns an exotic animal exhibition business in West Palm Beach, is also running as a proponent of congressional term limits, federal legalization of marijuana and LGBTQ rights.
Felton did not respond to a request from Yahoo News for comment on her use of the QAnon hashtags.
Trump has not issued an official endorsement for any of the Republican contenders in his home district, though he has retweeted a post in favor of Laura Loomer, a 27-year-old far-right activist whose promotion of inflammatory (non-Q) conspiracy theories and Islamophobic rhetoric has gotten her banned from a number of social media, ride-share and online banking platforms, including Twitter, PayPal, Uber and Lyft.
Loomer has the endorsements of a high-profile Trump supporter, Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Fla., and Republican strategist Roger Stone, and as of July 29 had raised over $1 million for her campaign — more than all the other primary candidates, including the incumbent. According to the Washington Post, Loomer’s campaign manager is Karen Giorno, a senior adviser to Trump’s 2016 campaign, who said his reelection team is committed to turning the district red.
“It was a directive not from the president, but on behalf of the president, he wanted this district flipped,” Giorno told the Post. “That’s his home district. He deserves to have someone represent him, not impeach him.”
22nd Congressional District: Darlene Swaffar and Jessi Melton
In the neighboring 22nd Congressional District, which encompasses the coastline of Broward County to southern Palm Beach County in southeast Florida, four Republicans are running for the chance to compete against Democratic incumbent Theodore Deutch. One of them is Darlene Swaffar, a 52-year-old New York native who owns a local insurance agency. As Media Matters for America has noted, Swaffar has tweeted the QAnon slogan repeatedly, and included it in the intro section of her personal Facebook page. Last April, she posted a comment on a Facebook page called “QAnon Great Awakening” that read, “Your posts have inspired me to explore my run for Congress in 2020. I’m being called to serve and fight for our country.”
Earlier this month, Swaffar followed pro-QAnon candidates from Hawaii and Oregon in tweeting a video of herself taking an oath of allegiance to QAnon.
Last week, in response to a “Good Morning America” segment on the QAnon phenomenon, Swaffar tweeted a link to her WinRed fundraising page along with a post stating: “I’ve never seen big tech/mainstream media go to such lengths to debunk a conspiracy theory. This patriot is going to Congress and could use your help. Spread the word, donate below. Primaries August 18th.”
Also competing in the Republican primary for the 22nd District is 32-year-old Jessi Melton, a former competitive bodybuilding champion who now owns a communications infrastructure development company in Boca Raton. As Yahoo News previously reported, Melton has used her own social media feeds to promote her appearance on a very popular YouTube channel devoted to QAnon and later shared a photo of herself with one of the hosts of that channel who attended one of her campaign events. She’s also tweeted criticisms of the Black Lives Matter movement, called for schools to reopen and pledged to prevent mandatory vaccinations.
According to the Palm Beach Post, “Melton has made national news for being suspended from Twitter at least three times in June and had posts removed from Facebook.” In one instance, the disciplinary actions came after Melton shared a Photoshopped tweet that falsely attributed to Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., a post advocating to extend coronavirus lockdown measures “until after the November Elections.” In another case, Melton posted the inaccurate claim that “Excessive use of face masks causes fungal and bacterial pneumonia.”
On her website, Melton boasts endorsements from Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., the Florida Right to Life Political Action Committee and Roger Stone. Her campaign has also raised over $180,000, primarily from individual donors, more than the rest of the Republican primary contenders in her district.
19th Congressional District: Darren Aquino and Dan Severson
Meanwhile, in southwest Florida’s 19th Congressional District, 11 candidates, including nine Republicans, are competing in primaries for the seat currently occupied by GOP Rep. Francis Rooney. Rooney announced he would not seek reelection in October after becoming one of the few Republicans in Congress to suggest he might vote to impeach Trump. (He ultimately voted against impeachment.) Last month the Fort Myers News-Press predicted, “While the race remains in flux, Trump is a likely winner. His control of the GOP — should he remain president — is likely to grow even stronger.”
Among the Republicans in the running to replace Rooney are Darren Aquino and Dan Severson, two Trump disciples who have both tweeted the QAnon slogan. Aquino is a native New Yorker, actor and founder of an organization called Advocates for Disabled Americans, Veterans, Police, Firemen & Families. His campaign website is peppered with various Trumpian buzzwords like “fake news media,” the “Chinese Virus pandemic,” “law & order” and “America First.” In addition to being an advocate for disabled Americans and the mentally ill in Congress, Aquino’s campaign platform includes support for “a nationalized Patriot Test,” which high school students would have to pass to graduate. If elected, Aquino vows to “call out anti-Americans who prevail in Congress, like Ilhan Omar and AOC” and says he will “propose legislation that requires people running for Congress to be naturally-born Americans.” (Any such change would require an amendment to the Constitution.)
Severson is a former member of the Minnesota House of Representatives and retired Navy fighter pilot who has pledged on his campaign website to “be the Wingman Donald Trump deserves in the United States Congress.” He’s also tweeted about Rep. Ilhan Omar, D-Minn., as well as liberal megadonor George Soros, both of whom are frequent targets of both the president and his supporters.
20th Congressional District: Vic DeGrammont
Greg Musselwhite and Vic DeGrammont are two first-time, pro-Trump candidates seeking the Republican nomination in Florida’s 20th Congressional District, which includes most of the majority-Black precincts in Fort Lauderdale and West Palm Beach and the surrounding areas. The solidly Democratic district is represented by longtime Rep. Alcee Hastings, who is being challenged in the primary by Sheila Cherfilus-McCormick, a 39-year-old health care executive who unsuccessfully sought to unseat Hastings in 2018.
Both Republican candidates regularly seek to prove their MAGA bona fides on social media by praising Trump and criticizing Joe Biden, Nancy Pelosi, the Black Lives Matter movement, antifa and others. DeGrammont, a real estate agent who, according to his website, was born in Brooklyn to immigrant parents from Haiti and Martinique, has also embraced QAnon. His Twitter profile includes the #Q hashtag, which he has repeatedly tweeted, along with the QAnon slogan #WWG1WGA.
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