Roll Call: Latest News on Capitol Hill, Congress, Politics and Elections
February 7, 2016

Front-runner Emerges in GOP Special Election for Trey Radel Seat

Radel pleaded guilty to cocaine possession in November. ( Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call File Photo)

Florida Republicans head to the polls for a special election Tuesday to pick a nominee to succeed former Rep. Trey Radel, who exited Congress earlier this year following his arrest for cocaine possession that culminated in a national scandal for Republicans.

The 19th District marks safe GOP territory, so whomever wins Tuesday’s primary will likely become the next member of Congress after the June 24 special election. Polling results — public and internal — have varied for the GOP contest.

But many Florida Republicans wager that a self-funding businessman, Curt Clawson, boasts an advantage over his top two primary rivals, state Senate Majority Leader Lizbeth Benacquisto and former state Rep. Paige Kreegel.

Clawson’s cash-flush campaign has framed his bid as that of a newcomer aligned with the tea party. Even Clawson’s Twitter handle (@ClawsonOutsider) sought to present him as the political outsider in the race.

“Everyone in Florida with a title backed Senate Majority Leader Benacquisto, and the tea party groups backed Clawson,” said Clawson’s general consultant, John Yob, in a Monday phone interview. “Therefore, it’s a very good indicator of the tea party and establishment divide play out across the country.”

But Clawson’s spending put his campaign on the map, regardless of tea party support. He loaned his campaign $2.65 million, according to his fundraising report filed earlier this month. More television ads ran in Clawson’s favor than any other candidate.

Kreegel’s campaign manager, Alex Melendez, once called Clawson “a man who is his own Super PAC’ in an email.

The tea party quickly got on board with Clawson, along with former Rep. Connie Mack, who held the seat prior to Radel’s short tenure. Retiring Rep. Michele Bachmann, R-Minn. and Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., also endorsed Clawson.

Just earlier this month, Clawson’s campaign was in peril. Various news outlets reported his alleged ties to a child predator. Benacquisto, Kreegel and a fourth Republican, Michael Dreikorn held a news conference on the matter. Clawson appeared at the event and defended himself.

Benacquisto’s backers believe she would have put this race away without Clawson’s deep pockets. She has picked up the support of national Republicans like former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin and former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee. Palin also campaigned in the district for her.

Benacquisto’s allies argue that her campaign fundraising – nearly $1 million – would stand out in almost any other House race.  What’s more, her supporters in Washington, D.C., believe she can still pull it out, saying they’ve never seen such erratic polling in a single federal race.

If Benacquisto loses, it will mark yet another setback for female Republicans like Reps. Ann Wagner of Missouri and Diane Black of Tennessee, who are trying to guide female candidates through primaries to increase their ranks in the House GOP caucus. Earlier this year, in another special primary Florida, state Rep. Kathleen Peters had the backing of a band of female members and lost her primary against now-Rep. David Jolly.

But Lee County GOP Chairman Terry Miller said that Clawson effectively labeled Benacquisto as a political insider.

“It’s an anti-incumbent attitude and her opponent was able to frame her as a career politican,” said Lee County GOP Chairman Terry Miller on Monday.

Kreegel, who lost the GOP nod to Radel in 2012, lagged behind Clawson and Benacquisto in campaign fundraising — but he had help from a pair of super PACs.

“Special elections typically have lower voter turnouts, as is,” Melendez said of the race. “Add to that the fact that most voters are so turned off by all of the negative advertising, and I believe that we will see an unprecedentedly low number of people showing up at the polls.”

The negative tone of the campaign bothers Miller, the local party chairman. He made clear he is ready to see an end to the divisive primary campaign.

“I certainly would have liked to have seen this campaign stay on a higher note,” he said. “I am looking forward to unifying the party and getting past the differences in this race.”

Polls close at 7 p.m.

  • rsubber

    So, in Florida’s 19th District, over $4 million has been spent by one party for TV ads in the primary contest for a “safe” seat….and three-quarters of that money has come from outside groups and one very wealthy candidate.

    I wonder how much cash the voters of the 19th District have ponied up to support the candidate of their choice?

    I wonder just who exactly this district is “safe” for?

    Some powerful and wealthy partisan folks are going to buy this congressional seat.

    More on my blogs:

  • Wigglesworth

    I thought the TEA Party was dead.

  • phillyroll

    How did this “culminate in a national scandal for Republicans”? I follow the news on the net and tv and saw no evidence of a scandal for Republicans. It was a scandal for Trey Radel but the liberal leftist media can’t wait to paint this as a scandal fro the whole gop. I wonder if this rag ever said that the Weiner scandal culminated in a scandal for the democrat party.

  • toomuchsense

    Evidently not for liberals like yourself.

  • Yonatan YONATAN

    While this news might be of interest to many, the REAL news that’s not discussed lately, is the news about the more than two million unemployed workers, and their families, who have without their benefits since late December. These families have been treated terribly by the Republican party, and left hung out to dry, without any means of support. These Americans are not “Lazy”, or “unwilling” to seek employment. Most of them are “older workers” who worked for years paying into the system, in the hopes that help would be there for them, if they should need it. Unfortunately, after 26 weeks of benefits, they were abruptly shut off from that support. These workers have been seeking employment in one of the worse recessions in many years. Many companies are not willing to hire them, due to their age, and the higher insurance risk that might cost their bottom line. While the Republicans continue to play “party politics”, and continue using these workers as bargaining chips, and for political leverage, these families are facing evictions, home foreclosures, personal bankruptcy, and homelessness. This is REAL. These things are HAPPENING right now. The Republicans claim to be concerned about “budgetary issues” and “fiscal responsibility”, well at the same time supporting an aid package for the Ukraine worth BILLIONS of tax payer’s dollars. Why are they not “concern” or compassionate regarding their own people here in this country? Where’s their so called “family value system”? The Republicans have shown their contempt for the poor and disadvantaged in our country, and that they would win at any cost to make President Obama fail in the public’s eyes. This is their sole reason for being. Please SUPPORT these families. Call or write to your elected officials and demand that they ACT on behalf of these unemployed workers. DEMAND that they PASS the extension bill IMMEDIATELY in the senate.

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