Republicans might be ready to turn to a self-styled "outsider" to replace disgraced former Rep. Trey Radel (R-Fla.).
Businessman Curt Clawson looks like the front-runner in Tuesday’s GOP primary to succeed Radel, who resigned this year amid cocaine charges.
The former Purdue University basketball star and auto executive has poured more than $2.6 million of his own money into his campaign. He’s deluged the airwaves with spots touting his resume, branding himself as an outsider and attacking his two state lawmaker opponents.
Polls indicate his spending and strategy have had an impact. An automated survey released Saturday for a local TV station from Democratic firm Public Policy Polling found Clawson leading his opponents by a 2-to-1 margin. Clawson took 38 percent support to 19 percent for Florida Senate Majority Leader Lizbeth Benacquisto (R), 18 percent for businessman Michael Dreikorn (R) and 17 percent for former state Rep. Paige Kreegel (R).
Another recent poll, an automated survey from St. Pete Polls for SaintPetersblog.com found a tighter race, with Clawson at 30 percent, Benacquisto at 26 percent and Kreegel at 21 percent.
Special elections are particularly unpredictable, especially primaries. Still, observers believe Clawson has the edge in the race, but Benacquisto has the best chance to leapfrog him.
“It looks like voters are looking for a new face. They're tired of what's happening and are willing to try something different. I think it's possible Benacquisto might pull something out, but it'll be a long shot,” said University of South Florida professor Susan MacManus. “A lot of it is the outsider factor. And he's had a lot of money.”
As establishment Republicans’ favorite in the race, Benacquisto has posted strong fundraising figures, raising $700,000 for the abbreviated campaign. But that was no match for Clawson’s deep pockets, and Benacquisto has been outspent by a wide margin for most of the race.
Clawson has focused on branding himself as a business-minded problem solver, locking in endorsements from Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.) and former Rep. Connie Mack (R-Fla.), who held the district until he unsuccessfully ran for the Senate in 2012.
Clawson's self-funding ability let him go up with a humorous ad challenging President Obama to a three-point contest during the Super Bowl. He's been on the air nearly constantly since then, and he’s used Paul’s endorsement in robocalls and radio ads in the heavily conservative southwest Florida district.
“The fact that Curt is new to politics, that he is the outsider, certainly has resonated well with the voters, absolutely,” said Clawson spokesman David James. “It’s the career politicians that have gotten Washington in the mess that it's in. The people down here are ready for someone new, and that's Curt Clawson.”
In recent days, however, Benacquisto has shown signs of momentum. An endorsement and subsequent campaign visit from former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin (R) earned her a lot of positive press coverage, and getting support from former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee (R) also boosted her in the race.
She’s also benefitted from $700,000 spent by a super-PAC on her behalf. But Kreegel has been the biggest beneficiary in outside money, with $1.3 million spent for him — outside money that likely kept the race a lot closer.
“We feel good about where we are because of the response Lizbeth is receiving. She's getting positive feedback; people know Lizbeth, know that she has a proven record of conservatism,” said Benacquisto spokeswoman Erin Isaac, who added that Palin's endorsement had helped rally the troops.
This is the second time Kreegel has run for the seat — he finished in third place behind Radel and another candidate in 2012. His campaign also insists he’s in a strong position heading into Tuesday’s election.
“Given that there are very few policy disagreements between the candidates, the voters' choice tomorrow will come down to who they feel is most adept to deal with the problems facing our nation,” said Kreegel spokesman Alex Melendez. “Our opponents want you to trust them because of gimmicky TV ads. Put your trust in Paige because of his record and service to his patients, our community, and his family.”
All of the campaigns involved say the race has gotten particularly nasty despite its short time window.
Clawson’s opponents have aired attacks linking him to a sex offender who rented a house he owns in Utah, and who he’d known as a child.
Clawson responded with an ad featuring of the mother of the molested child saying Clawson “had nothing to do with a private family ordeal” and calling on them to stop the attacks.
Clawson’s three rivals came together in a rare joint press conference to question his connection to the man — which he showed up to, grabbing the microphone to respond to their charges.
They’ve also hit Clawson on his business dealings, accusing him of taking stimulus money for his companies and ignoring safety standards at his plant.
Clawson has responded to the attacks from Values are Vital, the pro-Kreegel super-PAC, by attacking Kreegel for being too cozy with the group. One ad features a call from Kreegel warning Clawson that an attack ad from the group was about to air, which Clawson's campaign suggests shows Kreegel has illegally coordinated with the group.
The super-PAC backing Kreegel has also attacked Benacquisto as “Liberal Lizbeth."
The stakes are high for Tuesday’s vote — whoever grabs the nomination will be heavily favored ahead of the June 24 special general election.