Voters in southwest Florida went to polling places yesterday to nominate major party candidates in the preliminary process to replace resigned Rep. Trey Radel (R). The Ft. Myers anchored seat is safely Republican so last night’s GOP primary is likely definitive in determining who will succeed the deposed congressman.
Businessman Curt Clawson, campaigning as “The Outsider,” outpaced the Republican field of candidates with 38 percent of the vote, just as polling predicted. Above is a Clawson ad that emphasizes his background and campaign theme. State Senate Majority Leader Lizbeth Benacquisto was second with 26 percent, while former state representative and congressional candidate Paige Kreegel attracted 25 percent, and businessman Michael Dreikorn finished well behind with 11 percent.
Clawson will now face public relations executive April Freeman in the June 24 special general election. Freeman was unopposed in yesterday’s Democratic primary. But, in a district that voted for Mitt Romney in the 61st percentile and chose John McCain in 2008 with 57 percent of its votes, while never electing a Democratic Representative, it appears that the Republican businessman is heir apparent to the seat.
The June winner serves the balance of the current term. Just after entering the House, the new congressman will almost immediately be placed on the regular 2014 primary ballot, occurring only two months into his or her congressional tenure.
Before the special general, however, comes the May 2 candidate filing deadline for the regular 2014 election. It remains to be seen if any of the defeated Republican contenders file against Clawson after what will be such a short duration between elections. Because of his victory margin, chances are high that Clawson will have an easy road to renomination and will be well positioned to win a full term in November.
Turnout was relatively high for a special election primary. A total of 70,211 southwest Florida Republicans voted yesterday. No official tallies were recorded in the Democratic primary because Freeman was unopposed. By contrast, in the state’s 13th District Republican primary last January, just over 46,000 people voted. In the general election, more than 188,000 votes were cast, making it the top turnout special election of the cycle. It is unlikely the 19th District will see a commensurate future participation figure since the special general is not expected to be competitive.
Clawson liberally used his own funds for the campaign, likely exceeding more than $2 million. Because of outside group spending, however, the expenditure level among the three top candidates was at relative parity. According to a Roll Call report, Clawson’s total ad expenditure was approximately $1.75 million as compared to $1.3 million for Benacquisto, and $1.1 million for Kreegel.
Should Clawson ultimately claim victory, the Republican conference will grow to 234 members as compared to 199 Democrats and two vacancies. The latter two districts will remain unfilled until the regular general election because governors in both North Carolina and New Jersey have scheduled those special elections concurrently with the regular midterm vote. Representatives Mel Watt (D-NC-12) and Rob Andrews (D-NJ-1) resigned their seats earlier in the year to accept a federal appointment and a position in the private sector, respectively. Democrats will retain both seats.