‘Outsider’ Clawson Wins Republican Primary for Radel’s Seat

WASHINGTON, DC - JULY 9: U.S. Rep. Trey Radel (R-FL) speaks during a press conference, on Capitol Hill, July 9, 2013 in Washington, DC. The Republican leadership discussed the immigration bill and the Obama administration's decision to delay a portion of the Affordable Care Act, which will extend the deadline for employer mandated health care to 2015. (Photo by WASHINGTON, DC - JULY 9: U.S. Rep. Trey Radel (R-FL) speaks during a press conference, on Capitol Hill, July 9, 2013 in Washington, DC. The Republican leadership discussed the immigration bill and the Obama administration's decision to delay a portion of the Affordable Care Act, which will extend the deadline for employer mandated health care to 2015. (Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images))
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Jack Fitzpatrick
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Jack Fitzpatrick
April 22, 2014, 4:17 p.m.

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.”

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