Florida Special Election Pits Candidate’s Personal Wealth Against the Power of Super PACs

Curt Clawson has spent millions of his own fortune to become a member of Congress. His two Republican opponents are relying on super PAC money to stop him.

Rep. Trey Radel, R- Fla., is interviewed in the Capitol Hill office in Washington D.C. 
National Journal
Jack Fitzpatrick
April 20, 2014, 8 a.m.

Curt Clawson wants you to know he’s an out­sider.

Un­like his two lead­ing op­pon­ents in a Flor­ida spe­cial elec­tion on Tues­day, the mil­lion­aire former auto­mot­ive ex­ec­ut­ive nev­er spent any time in the state Le­gis­lature. The word “out­sider” ap­peared in an ad he aired dur­ing the Su­per Bowl, it’s in the name of his cam­paign com­mit­tee, and even in his Twit­ter handle, @Clawson­Out­sider. It’s also re­flec­ted in his en­dorse­ments from Sen. Rand Paul of Ken­tucky, Rep. Michele Bach­mann of Min­nesota, and the State Tea Party Ex­press.

But even as he boasts about his lack of polit­ic­al ex­per­i­ence, he’s re­ly­ing on his per­son­al wealth to over­whelm the op­pos­i­tion in Tues­day’s race for former Rep. Trey Radel’s House seat. In the primary, Clawson faces state Sen­ate Ma­jor­ity Lead­er Lizbeth Ben­ac­quisto and former state Rep. Paige Kree­gel, both of whom have two things Clawson does not: polit­ic­al ex­per­i­ence and per­son­al su­per PACs. Clawson has spent $2.65 mil­lion of his own money draw­ing at­ten­tion to that fact, re­peatedly men­tion­ing that he is not a politi­cian, and lump­ing Ben­ac­quisto and Kree­gel to­geth­er as the col­lect­ive Tal­l­a­hassee es­tab­lish­ment.

In do­ing so, he has pro­voked a wave of out­side spend­ing from the Liberty and Lead­er­ship Fund, which has spent more than $677,000 back­ing Ben­ac­quisto, and Val­ues Are Vi­tal, which has spent nearly $1.3 mil­lion back­ing Kree­gel. Neither su­per PAC has spent money on any oth­er race, and while Ben­ac­quisto notes that she has no af­fil­i­ation with the Liberty and Lead­er­ship Fund, it has the same ad­dress as her own PAC, Al­li­ance For a Strong Eco­nomy.

It’s rare to see two su­per PACs — both of which ex­ist for the sole pur­pose of a single race — fire back on be­half of two so-called es­tab­lish­ment Re­pub­lic­ans. In that sense, Clawson may have ex­per­i­enced something that be­comes more com­mon in fu­ture primar­ies, spokes­man John Yob said.

“In oth­er cam­paigns, you see something like the Club For Growth in­volved, but it’s al­ways those na­tion­al or­gan­iz­a­tions,” Yob said. “Here, they were very spe­cif­ic to the can­did­ates they sup­port.”

Clawson’s busi­ness back­ground gave the su­per PACs plenty of am­muni­tion. A series of ads by both PACs cri­ti­cized Clawson for a deadly ex­plo­sion in one of his com­pany’s factor­ies, for ac­cept­ing a tax­pay­er-fun­ded bail­out for his busi­ness that went bank­rupt, for his con­nec­tions to a Utah sex of­fend­er, and for once donat­ing to a Demo­crat.

After Clawson had framed the race as a battle between him and every­one else, he had felt the sting when the Liberty and Lead­er­ship Fund and Val­ues Are Vi­tal struck back, along with A Bright Fu­ture, a smal­ler pro-Kree­gel su­per PAC that spent $100,000 on the race.

There hasn’t been much re­li­able pub­lic polling on the race: An auto­mated sur­vey con­duc­ted by Pub­lic Policy Polling in­dic­ates he’s the fa­vor­ite, with sup­port from 38 per­cent of re­spond­ents com­pared to 19 per­cent for Ben­ac­quisto and 17 per­cent for Kree­gel. Avi­ation con­sult­ant Mi­chael Dreikorn, who has struggled to raise funds, has no polit­ic­al ex­per­i­ence, and is not backed by any PACs, re­ceived 18 per­cent of the vote.

If it wasn’t for the pres­ence of the out­side su­per PACs, Clawson’s per­son­al wealth would have all but guar­an­teed him the seat. In­stead, Ben­ac­quisto’s and Kree­gel’s su­per PACs have nar­rowed Clawson’s fin­an­cial ad­vant­age.

Clawson is also not the sole vic­tim of neg­at­ive ads: His cam­paign re­leased a TV ad im­ply­ing Kree­gel il­leg­ally co­ordin­ated with Val­ues Are Vi­tal and cri­ti­ciz­ing Ben­ac­quisto for past cam­paign fin­ance vi­ol­a­tions. Kree­gel had left a voice mes­sage for Clawson to warn him of forth­com­ing neg­at­ive ads by Val­ues Are Vi­tal, later say­ing he had seen the pub­lic FEC re­ports.

“If we learned one thing from the voice­mail situ­ation, it is that even an act of ci­vil­ity can be turned against you,” said Kree­gel cam­paign man­ager Alex Melen­dez in an email. “The fact that it was used against us in a polit­ic­al ad­vert­ise­ment just shows that no good deed goes un­pun­ished.”

The win­ner of the Re­pub­lic­an primary will be the fa­vor­ite in the spe­cial gen­er­al elec­tion on June 24, fa­cing pub­lic re­la­tions firm own­er April Free­man, the lone Demo­crat in the race.

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