Florida Republicans head to the polls for a special election Tuesday to pick a nominee to succeed former Rep. Trey Radel, who exited Congress earlier this year following his arrest for cocaine possession that culminated in a national scandal for Republicans.
The 19th District marks safe GOP territory, so whomever wins Tuesday's primary will likely become the next member of Congress after the June 24 special election. Polling results — public and internal — have varied for the GOP contest.
But many Florida Republicans wager that a self-funding businessman, Curt Clawson, boasts an advantage over his top two primary rivals, state Senate Majority Leader Lizbeth Benacquisto and former state Rep. Paige Kreegel. Clawson's cash-flush campaign has framed his bid as that of a newcomer aligned with the tea party. Even Clawson's Twitter handle (@ClawsonOutsider) sought to present him as the political outsider in the race.
"Everyone in Florida with a title backed Senate Majority Leader Benacquisto, and the tea party groups backed Clawson," said Clawson's general consultant, John Yob, in a Monday phone interview. "Therefore, it’s a very good indicator of the tea party and establishment divide play out across the country."
But Clawson's spending put his campaign on the map, regardless of tea party support. He loaned his campaign $2.65 million, according to his fundraising report filed earlier this month. More television ads ran in Clawson's favor than any other candidate.
The tea party quickly got on board with Clawson, along with former Rep. Connie Mack, who held the seat prior to Radel's short tenure. Retiring Rep. Michele Bachmann, R-Minn. and Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., also endorsed Clawson .
Just earlier this month, Clawson's campaign was in peril. Various news outlets reported his alleged ties to a child predator . Benacquisto, Kreegel and a fourth Republican, Michael Dreikorn held a news conference on the matter. Clawson appeared at the event and defended himself.
Benacquisto's backers believe she would have put this race away without Clawson's deep pockets. She has picked up the support of national Republicans like former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin and former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee. Palin also campaigned in the district for her.
Benacquisto's allies argue that her campaign fundraising - nearly $1 million - would stand out in almost any other House race. What's more, her supporters in Washington, D.C., believe she can still pull it out, saying they've never seen such erratic polling in a single federal race.
If Benacquisto loses, it will mark yet another setback for female Republicans like Reps. Ann Wagner of Missouri and Diane Black of Tennessee, who are trying to guide female candidates through primaries to increase their ranks in the House GOP caucus. Earlier this year, in another special primary Florida, state Rep. Kathleen Peters had the backing of a band of female members and lost her primary against now-Rep. David Jolly.
But Lee County GOP Chairman Terry Miller said that Clawson effectively labeled Benacquisto as a political insider.
"It’s an anti-incumbent attitude and her opponent was able to frame her as a career politican," said Lee County GOP Chairman Terry Miller on Monday.
Kreegel, who lost the GOP nod to Radel in 2012, lagged behind Clawson and Benacquisto in campaign fundraising — but he had help from a pair of super PACs.
The negative tone of the campaign bothers Miller, the local party chairman. He made clear he is ready to see an end to the divisive primary campaign.
"I certainly would have liked to have seen this campaign stay on a higher note," he said. "I am looking forward to unifying the party and getting past the differences in this race."
Polls close at 7 p.m.