Curt Clawson, the "outsider" candidate who invested millions of dollars in his campaign, has won the Republican nomination to replace former Rep. Trey Radel in a southwest Florida district that heavily favors Republicans.
A former auto-manufacturing executive and basketball player at Purdue University, Clawson beat state Senate Majority Leader Lizbeth Benacquisto, former state Rep. Paige Kreegel, and aviation consultant Michael Dreikorn. Clawson won 38 percent of the vote, Benacquisto won 26 percent, Paige won 25 percent, and Dreikorn won 11 percent, with 141 of 148 precincts in when the Associated Press called the race Tuesday evening.
Clawson will be the favorite over public-relations firm owner April Freeman, the lone candidate in the Democratic primary, in a June 24 special election.
Clawson's win is a victory for the tea party and for inexperienced, antiestablishment candidates seeking to challenge more experienced Republicans. His campaign focused on his lack of political experience and took an antiestablishment tone, and he earned endorsements from antiestablishment figures including Sen. Rand Paul, Rep. Michele Bachmann, and the State Tea Party Express.
The race "perfectly exemplifies the contrast within the Republican Party nationally," Clawson campaign spokesman John Yob said last week.
And the primary race was not short on drama or accusations, even by the standard set by Radel, who was arrested for buying cocaine. Clawson, who loaned his campaign $2.65 million of his own money, was the subject of repeated attack ads by super PACs supporting Benacquisto and Kreegel. His business background gave them plenty of ammunition: The ads linked Clawson to a sex offender in Utah, criticized him for soliciting government bailout money for his business's bankruptcy, drew attention to a deadly explosion in an auto plant his company owned, and even pointed out that he had once donated to a Democrat.
Clawson, for his part, fired back with an ad accusing Kreegel of illegally coordinating with the super PAC supporting him.
Clawson's personal wealth might have made him a heavy favorite if not for the millions of dollars in outside spending supporting Benacquisto and Kreegel, each of whom was backed by a super PAC focused solely on this race. The Liberty and Leadership Fund spent $677,000 supporting Benacquisto, and Values Are Vital spent $1.3 million supporting Kreegel.
Still, Clawson's personal funds gave him an edge. He spent heavily, running an ad during the Super Bowl in which he challenged President Obama to a three-point shootout. His efforts to cast Benacquisto and Kreegel as the Florida political establishment were largely successful. Aside from an endorsement from Sarah Palin, Benacquisto's campaign got little national support, instead garnering endorsements from state lawmakers.
A late poll by Public Policy Polling, released on April 18, showed Clawson with a 19-point lead over Benacquisto, a 20-point lead over Dreikorn, and a 21-point lead over Kreegel.
Yob said the race might signal an era of narrowly focused super PACs supporting only one candidate, but shortly before the election, he said he doubted the strategy would prove effective for Benacquisto or Kreegel.
"They haven't been very effective with the negative ads," Yob said last week. "We feel very good about our chances."
Aside from how it reflects on the Republican divide, the race also received some attention simply for choosing the replacement to Radel, said Kreegel campaign manager Alex Melendez.
"Given the amount of attention that this area received as a result of our former congressman being arrested for cocaine possession," Melendez said in an email, "it is only logical that this special election garner a similar level of involvement from the national media."
This article appears in the April 23, 2014 edition of NJ Daily.