For many years, Judson Sapp had his hands full.
He was running his family’s railroad construction business, had a family of his own, and participated in professional associations and charity work.
Sapp also raised money for the Republican Party. In return, he hoped elected leaders would help President Donald Trump fulfill his campaign promises. But by 2017, the Affordable Care Act was still the law of the land, the wall was no closer to completion and the president seemed swarmed by media and political enemies determined to stymie his every move.
He talked back to the television. Then his wife Kelly issued a challenge.
“She said, ‘Either turn off the news and stop worrying about it or walk the walk like you’ve always done,’” said Sapp, 43. “That’s when I decided to run for the first time.”
Sapp ran for the U.S. House of Representatives in 2018, representing Florida’s 3rd Congressional District, losing to incumbent Ted Yoho in the primary. Sapp is running for the same seat in 2020, only now it’s open.
The North Central Florida district includes Gainesville, Ocala and Sapp’s native Clay County, a Republican stronghold. Floridians nudged Trump past Hillary Clinton in 2016 by a single percentage point thanks to enclaves like the 3rd District, where Trump’s margin of victory was 16 points.
Sapp has picked up the endorsements of U.S. representatives John Rutherford and Vern Buchanan, Turning Point USA’s Charlie Kirk, former Trump press secretary Sean Spicer and loyalist Roger Stone.
He agreed to serve as co-chair of financing for Trump Victory, the president’s 2020 campaign organization, despite also mounting his own. Sapp’s website frames him as a “Conservative Champion” of lower taxes, right to life, border security, dismantling “Obamacare” and the Department of Education.
“When I and other conservatives talk about making America great again or keep keeping America great, part of the philosophy we’re talking about is getting back to an earlier time,” he said.
An idyllic time in his own life, apart from one terrifying incident.
Sapp grew up in Fleming Island, a thumb-shaped patch of land along the St. Johns River in Clay County.
Now unincorporated and dotted with pricey subdivisions, Fleming Island presented an idyllic landscape for boys to roam.
“It was all dirt roads,” he said. He explored a golf course since overgrown with forest to explore, an abandoned airfield and even a lighthouse.
“It was just an amazing experience.”
The most vivid memory of his childhood was not a good one. Late one night when Sapp was 12, the family pulled into a convenience store. As they were ready to leave, he recalls sitting in the back seat with his father at the wheel. They were waiting for his mother to come back.
Only Sapp’s mother was not shopping. She was locked inside the store’s walk-in freezer, put there by two men who had been released from prison just that morning.
“They needed a quick score,” Sapp said. Outside one of the men approached the family car.
“They were armed, and they tried to take the car,” he said. One of the men opened the driver’s side door. But by then his father had drawn his own weapon.
“He had gone to Code Red thinking something imminent was about to happen,” Sapp said. “He opened the door and shoved his gun at my dad, and immediately my dad pushed the gun away and brandished his own gun. The guy instantly turned and ran, but as he was running, he fired a shot back at the car.”
The bullet didn’t hit anyone. The men were caught and returned to prison. His mother was OK. But the memory has stayed fresh.
“It was intense, but I’ll tell you what,” he said. “These experiences shape you in life. And that taught me the value of self-defense.”
Sapp lists his support for the National Rifle Association first among his campaign positions. He is a lifetime member of Gun Owners of America, which bills itself as less compromising than the NRA.
“My thing is that criminals don’t follow laws,” he said. “And that law-abiding citizens do. Gun laws don’t do anything to keep us safe. Unfortunately, that’s just the truth. So, I have a complete right to bear arms.”
Former NRA spokeswoman Dana Loesch has said she was “incredibly impressed“ with Sapp, a candidate “who is not going to back away from fighting against progressive disarmament policies.”
The same year as the convenience store incident, Sapp joined the Boy Scouts. He stayed all the way through Eagle. He majored in philosophy at Florida State University, concentrating on propositional logic, the art of building complex statements out of simple ones. It taught him to listen.
He is the chief executive officer of W.J. Sapp and Son Railroad Contractors, which builds and maintains railroad tracks through seven Southern states. Based in Bradford, just outside of Jacksonville, the company kept working during the coronavirus shutdown in order to keep vital supply lines operating.
“Transportation is my key issue,” he said. “Roads, rail, air, all are extremely important, vital infrastructure for our country, and those projects are return-on-investment projects. ”We have to invest in infrastructure, and that includes water and internet.”
He hopes to bring that expertise to the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee. For now, he raises money for Trump ahead of his own campaign.
“When I’m calling a donor I’ll say, ‘Hey, I need you to donate to the President first. Then you can worry about me.’”
Trump’s popularity has taken a hit in recent weeks, according to several polls. Some of those wounds might be self-inflicted. Over the Memorial Day weekend, for example, he tweeted about Rep. Stacey Abrams’ weight, about Nancy Pelosi’s appearance, and hinted that Joe Scarborough might have killed someone.
Sapp calls that kind of rhetoric part of Trump’s unfiltered charm. “He fights back,” he said. “If I were president, would I temper my words slightly? Well, I’m a Southern boy. I’m not from where he’s from. I think it fits his personality and who we voted for. Voters are hungry for a real guy, not a politician.”
In April, an internal poll by Americana Analytics showed Sapp leading nine other candidates with 16% of the vote. The next closest had 4%.
He’s chipping in to campaign for House Republican candidates in other districts, hoping to take back the House. “We’ve got to flip the House back,” he said. ”We just have to do it.”
That seems less certain. Sapp’s own seat opened up because incumbent Yoho announced in December he would not seek a fifth term.
“Republicans in safe seats don’t usually retire if they think their party is going to win back the majority in Congress next year,” Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee spokesman Avery Jaffe told Roll Call.
Sapp keeps working toward the goals he sees as vital to the country’s prosperity. Any free time goes to taking the boys out on the water or in nature, or a date night with his wife.
“I reached a point where it was either just enjoy life, I’ve been very successful, or do something about it,” he said. “And if I’m going to do something, I’m going to really do it. I’m not just going to talk about it. So, I decided this is the best way I can preserve the America I grew up in and protect our constitution for the next generation.”