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Retired U.S. Navy officer Phil Ehr announced Monday that ere will challenge freshman Republican Matt Gaetz for Northwest Florida’s seat in Congress next year.

Ehr, who is running as a Democrat, announced his campaign with a rally at Pensacola’s Veterans Memorial Park. A longtime Republican, Ehr said he switched parties earlier this year after 30 years in the GOP.

“Extreme radical views compelled me to question the Republican Party’s commitment to American values,” Ehr said. “That’s why I switched to the Democratic Party.”

Retired U.S. Navy officer Phil Ehr is running for Congress. (Ehr for Congress/Special to The Pulse)

A 26-year Navy veteran, Ehr rose from deck seaman to commander over the course of a career which included flying classified reconnaissance in the Cold War and combat support missions during Operation Desert Storm. After retiring from active duty, Ehr taught British military officers at King’s College London and served as the chief executive of the English Chess Federation for four years.

“I will help Washington work for you,” Ehr said Monday. “I will focus on improving the lives of everyday Americans. I will fight for good jobs, affordable healthcare, and respect for public education.”

Former state representative Matt Gaetz was elected to the congressional seat last year after eight-term incumbent Jeff Miller decided to retire. Gaetz topped a crowded Republican primary field before going on trounce Democrat Steven Specht by more than 30 points.

That’s par for the course for Democrats in Florida’s first congressional district in recent years. A Democrat hasn’t represented the district, which stretches across six counties, in more than 20 years. The district hasn’t voted for a Democratic presidential candidate since 1960. The Cook Political Report gives the district a Partisan Voting Index of R+22, meaning Republicans have a 22-percentage-point advantage over Democrats, the highest in the state.

In fact, no Democrat has managed to garner more than 31 percent of the vote in the congressional race since Joe Scarborough flipped the seat from blue to red in 1994.

Republican Matt Gaetz, right, was elected as Northwest Florida’s new congressman in 2016. (Drew Buchanan/Special to The Pulse)

Local Democrats are optimistic about Ehr’s chances, though.

“Sending Phil Ehr to Washington will send a message to Congress that the needs of the working poor and middle class will be addressed,” said Dianne Krumel, the Florida Democratic Party’s congressional district chair.

“Phil has character,” said Ellison Bennett, a Vietnam veteran, business owner, and longtime civil rights advocate. “We need to go all in and send him to Congress.”

Republican and Democratic primary elections in the congressional race are scheduled for August 28, 2018, with the general election set for November 6, 2018.

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