FORT MYERS, Fla. (CBSMiami/NSF) — Curt Clawson, a Bonita Springs businessman who painted himself as a tea party “outsider,” handily defeated state Senate Majority Leader Lizbeth Benacquisto and emerged the winner Tuesday in a brutal Republican primary to replace former Congressman Trey Radel.
Radel announced his resignation in late January, nearly three months after being arrested in Washington on a cocaine-possession charge.
In the four-way GOP contest, Clawson received about 38 percent of the vote, while Benacquisto got about 26 percent and former state Rep. Paige Kreegel collected about 25 percent, according to results posted on the state Division of Elections website with almost all precincts reporting. Michael Dreikorn garnered nearly 11 percent.
The Southwest Florida District 19 runs from Fort Myers to Naples and is one of the most conservative districts in Florida, meaning Clawson will likely head to Congress after the June 24 general election. He will face Cape Coral Democrat April Freeman and Marco Island Libertarian Ray Netherwood.
Supporters of the frontrunners in the race — Benacquisto and Clawson — spent millions of dollars on television ads and blistering mailers in the fight to replace Radel, a first-term congressman who initially refused to resign but within months bowed to pressure from Republican leaders and stepped down.
Clawson campaigned as an “outsider” and capitalized on his background as a captain on the Purdue University basketball team, which won the Big Ten championship in 1984. Federal campaign-finance records show that the businessman loaned himself $2.65 million earlier this month.
Both Clawson and Benacquisto aligned themselves with tea party leaders in an effort to sway the region’s conservative voters. Clawson nailed down endorsements from former U.S. Rep. Connie Mack, who held the seat before Radel, along with Minnesota Congresswoman Michele Bachmann. Benacquisto won the backing of former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, who held a fundraiser for the Senate majority leader earlier this month, and former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee.
Benacquisto also had the support of GOP leaders in the state House and Senate.
Republican Party of Florida Chairman Lenny Curry congratulated Clawson for his victory.
“As an experienced business leader and former college basketball player, Clawson brings a straightforward and aggressive approach to a more efficient government. His ‘turnaround’ initiatives toward positive economic growth will help rewrite the recycled playbook of Washington’s failed policies, and provide needed relief to small businesses and families throughout Lee and Collier counties,” Curry said in a statement.
This report is by Dara Kam with The News Service of Florida.