Republican Curt Clawson grabbed voters' attention in January by airing a campaign ad during the Super Bowl challenging President Obama to a three-point shoot-out. So it's natural that the former Purdue University basketball player, after winning the special election to replace former Rep. Trey Radel, frequently uses basketball metaphors when he describes being sworn in.
"It's like playing in the conference championship while having to study for finals," Clawson said, describing the whirlwind of winning the race, then learning his way around the Capitol, meeting members of Florida's congressional delegation, and setting up offices in Washington and Florida.
Now that he's in office, Clawson's first step is to forge connections with other lawmakers.
"I need to understand our locker room and the players in the locker room," Clawson said. "Those have to happen before pushing my economic message and jobs message."
So far, he's met with House Majority Leader-elect Kevin McCarthy and some Republican representatives from Florida, and he has hired 12 staffers for his two offices.
Even though the race took place in a strongly Republican district, it put Clawson in the national spotlight. He was, after all, replacing the scandal-tarred Radel, who left office after being caught buying cocaine from an undercover police officer. To prove they wouldn't repeat Radel's mistakes, Clawson and his opponents, Democrat April Freeman and Libertarian Ray Netherwood, took drug tests and released their results. The tests came back clean.
Clawson easily defeated Freeman and Netherwood with 67 percent of the vote. But the Republican primary was crowded, competitive, and expensive, pitting Clawson against state Senate Majority Leader Lizbeth Benacquisto and former state Rep. Paige Kreegel.
Clawson won the GOP nomination by playing up his status as a tea-party-backed "outsider" with business experience and a detailed economic growth plan. Now, he says, the tea party could win more elections and improve its reputation if it uses a similar two-pronged approach, marrying smaller government with a focus on economic competitiveness.
"The two walk hand in hand and oppose that idea about tea-party candidates being the unsophisticated people who are angry but just sit around not doing anything about it," Clawson said.
Campaign manager John Yob, who also worked on Nebraska Republican Ben Sasse's Senate campaign, wrote a memo after Clawson's and Sasse's primary wins detailing how the two candidates could provide a template for future wins. Both candidates, Yob wrote, managed to appeal to tea-party candidates and establishment Republicans. Clawson was a particularly strong tea-party candidate because, while he had no political experience, his business background "could appeal to the more-establishment-minded retired CEOs, executives, and more-traditional Republicans," Yob wrote.
Nationally, the tea party could have more influence if it supports candidates who appeal to insiders and outsiders, rather than waging a war within the party, Yob wrote. That might explain why the central focus of Clawson's campaign is not particularly populist. He ran against Washington, but his economic plan prioritizes economic growth over balancing the budget, and it includes cuts to corporate taxes and capital-gains taxes.
"The theory of my candidacy is that we have become internationally uncompetitive at a time when the globe has shrunk," Clawson said.
While Clawson's business experience seemed to help, it also didn't hurt that he had millions of dollars to spend. He lent his campaign $3.65 million and went on the air early with his Super Bowl ad.
That investment was necessary to counter the super PACs supporting Benacquisto and Kreegel. Values Are Vital super PAC spent more than $1.6 million backing Kreegel, and the Liberty and Leadership Fund super PAC spent nearly $700,000 supporting Benacquisto, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. Clawson also received support from the state Tea Party Express and the Tea Party Patriots Citizens Fund.
Despite the widespread attention on the primary race, some of the tea-party leaders backing Clawson say his victory was overlooked. Winning a tough race early in primary season against a state Senate majority leader was a major accomplishment, said Tea Party Patriots Citizens Fund spokesman Kevin Broughton, but until economics professor Dave Brat unseated House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, the national narrative was that the tea party had little to brag about. High-profile challengers got more attention than tea-party winners in open-seat races, like Clawson or Alex Mooney, who won the nomination for Rep. Shelley Moore Capito's House seat in West Virginia, Broughton said.
"I asked [reporters], do you not want to talk about Clawson or Alex Mooney? And it was like I just showed a dog a card trick. It was just a blank stare. We know there's a narrative out there. That's the playing field we have."
While the tea party wants more credit for helping Clawson, he wants credit for helping the tea party, saying he hopes he can provide "a new model" for candidates.