Florida GOP Primary Big Win for Rand Paul, Political 'Outsiders'

Image: Florida GOP Primary Big Win for Rand Paul, Political 'Outsiders' Curt Clawson celebrates after winning the special election in Florida's 19th Congressional District Republican primary on April 22.

Wednesday, 23 Apr 2014 11:07 AM

By John Gizzi

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Businessman Curt Clawson's easy win on Tuesday for the GOP nomination in Florida's 19th Congressional District resonated beyond the borders of the upscale, safely Republican district.

With results nearly final, first-time candidate Clawson rolled up 38 percent of the vote to 26 percent for state Senate Majority Leader Lizbeth Benacquisto and 25 percent for former state Rep. Paige Kreegel.

Along with fueling the candidacies elsewhere of fellow businesspeople candidates and "anti-politicians," Clawson's primary win in the district vacated by GOP Rep. Trey Radel — who resigned after pleading guilty to cocaine possession — is also a boost for a likely presidential bid by Rand Paul in 2016.

The Kentucky senator came out strongly and early for Clawson, while two other national party figures — Mike Huckabee and Sarah Palin — weighed in for his leading opponent, Benacquisto.

Other major players in Clawson's nomination were Phyllis Schlafly's Eagle Forum and the Tea Party Express.

Clawson's win is tantamount to victory in the June 24 special election given the conservative leaning of the Southwest Florida district encompassing Lee and Collier counties.

Clawson's campaign as "the outsider for Congress" was pivotal to his big win. Leading opponents Benacquisto and Kreegel were both seasoned officeholders.

In contrast, Clawson, onetime Purdue University basketball star and top executive with Honeywell and American National Can Company, emphasized that he was the only major candidate in the race with a background exclusively in the private sector.

Clawson's anti-establishment image was inarguably burnished in the twilight of the campaign.

Two weeks ago, published reports revealed that $300,000 from the Republican Party of Florida found its way into the coffers of a super PAC supporting Benacquisto. The money went from party headquarters to several other committees before winding up in the hands of the pro-Benacquisto Leadership and Liberty Fund, which spent much of its resources on attack salvos against Clawson.

"How dare the party act stupid, like they don't know?" former Republican Rep. Connie Mack, who represented the 19th District from 2002 to 2012 and was a Clawson supporter, told reporters. "I think the people of Southwest Florida will reject the idea that a super PAC funded by the party is going to tell us who our next member of Congress is going to be."

Paul's strong endorsement of Clawson came as Huckabee and Palin were coming out for Benacquisto — seemingly strange, as the former governors of Arkansas and Alaska are more frequently aligned with outsider instead of establishment candidates.

On April 2, five leaders of tea party organizations from Southwest Florida wrote a strongly worded open letter to Palin voicing their disappointment with her endorsement of Benacquisto.

Noting that the state senator "was once a registered Democrat," the tea partiers pointed out to Palin that "she raised taxes and fees as a member of the City Council of Wellington" and "voted for Medicaid expansion" while in the state Senate. They also denounced her support of the Common Core education standards and "using the same gutter tactics that Barack Obama used against Mitt Romney in 2012 to demonize success."

"You prefer to endorse female candidates as part of your 'Mama Grizzly' efforts," the tea partiers wrote to Palin. "But in this case, you endorsed the moderate establishment candidate who is opposed by grass-roots conservatives across Southwest Florida."

Most analysts of Clawson's win focused on him being an "anti-politician."

"When Congress's approval rating is running as low as 11 percent, outsider candidates like Curt Clawson will have an advantage," concluded Mark Kennedy, former Republican congressman from Minnesota and now head of the Graduate School of Political Management at George Washington University. "He is able to leverage his successful business career as evidence that he can get results, and that will resonate with voters dissatisfied with Washington's inability to act.

"I don't think one race is a coronation for Rand Paul the kingmaker, but one can never have too many allies in politics."

John Gizzi is chief political columnist and White House correspondent for Newsmax.

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