Clawson Hopes to Provide New Model for Tea Party

UNITED STATES - JUNE 25: Rep.-elect Curt Clawson, R-Fla., points to his member pin after the ceremonial swearing-in photo opportunity in the Capitol on Wednesday, June 25, 2014. (Photo By Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)
National Journal
Jack Fitzpatrick
June 29, 2014, 4:38 p.m.

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.

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