Republicans will go to the polls on April 22nd (well, those who haven’t voted by mail yet) to cast a ballot for what has turned into a very contentious primary for Congressional District 19 in Florida. The district, part of the the southwest suburbs of Florida, has a vacancy thanks to the resignation of Congressmen Trey Radel. Radel resigned following his conviction for cocaine possession, the first incumbent congressman to be convicted for that charge. The race has turned into an incredibly costly and bloody affair. The district is composed of most of Lee county in its north and the coast of Collier County.
The race is largely between three individuals. The perceived front-runner was State Senator Lizbeth Benacquisto. Benacquisto has been in the state senate since 2010 and serves as Majority Leader in the chamber. She is an ally of Don Gaetz, the powerful Senate President. Benacquisto’s state senate seat covers a large portion of Lee County and she is familiar in the area. Benacquisto’s initial main challenger was Paige Kreegel, a former state representative who came in third in the Republican primary in 2012 for the then-open seat. Kreegel’s district only encompassed a few precincts in the northern end of the district, but his appearance on a Republican ballot for the district is a plus for him. Businessman Curt Clawson, who made his fortune with Hayes Lemmerz, a company that made wheels and brakes for cars, also jumped into the race. Clawson quickly grew his support by self-funding his campaign to the tune of over $2.6 million as of the latest finance reports. Benacquisto, meanwhile, has raised $1 million, and Kreegel has raised over $200,000. Clawson’s self-funding has made him a serious contender for winning the seat.
They campaign has devolved into a very negative affair. Clawson has focused his messaging on building himself as an outsider, trying to latch onto the Tea Party movement that has swept many anti-establishment politicians into office. Clawson has secured the endorsements of Michele Bachmann, Rand Paul, and other tea party leaders. He has hammered Benacquisto and Kreegel as establishment politicians. Meanwhile, Clawson has come under heavy fire for his business dealings.. Under Clawson’s days leading Hayes Lemmerz, the company laid off thousands, closed plants, and was subject to investigations for the death of a worker in a plant explosion. In addition, Clawson has come under fire for his business ties to a man convicted of sexual assault on a minor. A particularly interesting development in the campaign occurred when Clawson showed up at a press conference being held by his other opponents that they were using to attack his ties to the convicted man. In the last few weeks Clawson has focused is attacks on all the attacks against him, decrying the negative campaign. Clawson started running an ad with a beach background ocean noise with a text scroll saying he wanted to give voters a break from the negativity. Benacquisto, meanwhile, has been trying to sure-up her support with social conservatives; getting the endorsements of Mike Huckabee and Sarah Palin. She has touted her pro-life position, opposing abortion even in cases of rape and incest. The race is largely seen as coming down to a fight between Benacquisto and Clawson. Clawson’s money has made him competitive, but if he wins, it may be on the back of the anti-establishment wave.
Another dynamic in the race has been heavy spending by third party groups. The RPOF itself has gotten involved, funneling over $300,000 to Benacquisto through a string of PAC donations. The implicity backing by the state party, which they deny, has caused outcry from Tea Party groups and former Representative Connie Mack IV, who has endorsed Clawson. Heavy TV spending has been reported by third party groups. Roll Call has a detailed breakdown of the third-party spending. Around $900,000 have been spent on TV by two pro-Kreegel PACS, $600,000 from a pro-Benacquisto PAC, and around $100,000 from a pro-Clawson PAC.
As the race enters its final stretch, it appears Clawson has the momentum. Two polls have showed him leading, one by 4% and another by double digits. A Clawson win would no doubt be characterized as another outsider win in the GOP civil war between the establishment and tea party. However, it should be noted Clawson’s self-funding has helped make him viable. That said, it is still striking that Benacquisto could not only lose, but lose by alot.
Benacquisto, beside being well financed with a great deal of institutional backing, has represented a large portion of the district in one way or another for the last several years. Benacquisto started off as a city commissioner in Wellington, a city on the opposite coast of the state. However, in 2010 she won a state senate seat, district 27, that stretched from Palm Beach to Cape Coral, one coast to another. Incidentally these two main population centers are connected by Lake Okeechobee and rural farmland and is a great example of the horrendous gerrymandering in Florida. In 2012, the districts were re-drawn and Benacquisto ran for a state senate district seat, district 30, that covers a good deal of Lee County. In total, Benacquisto represented, through her old district or current one, over 70% of the voters that cast a ballot in the 2012 Republican primary for congressional district 19. The map below shows the districts she has represented in the past overlaying the 19th congressional district.
The Senate district Benacquisto represents now (green) covers a good portion of CD19. She did not face a Republican primary in 2012 when she won that seat in redistricting, but she did have a Republican primary in 2010 for the old Senate District 27. She won a three-way primary with 39% of the vote. However, she actually performed stronger in the western part of the district than the east, even though her city of Wellington was on the eastern half. The map below shows the primary results for her 2010 primary in the precincts of SD27 that also fell within the current boundaries of CD19.
Benacquisto bested Sharon Merchant and Mike Lameyer with 41% in the above precincts, two points better than her district-wide percents. However, she clear was not the choice of a majority of the area. As numbers come in for the election, how she does in the areas she represented in SD30 or SD27 should be watched carefully.
The precincts in Lee County make up 70% of the votes that were cast in the 2012 primary. Benacquisto’s familiarity in Lee should help her. However, the dynamics of the race and Clawson’s apparent surge could undermine that advantage. There is a base of votes in Collier, but a candidate could lose it and still win a split primary. In 2012, Radel came in third in Collier but still won the race.
Using the 2012 primary as a reference, the vote clusters will be in the Cape Coral region of the district in Lee county and the Naples region in North Collier county.
Looking at income levels in the district, many of the upper income neigborhoods (the mean income is $80,000 a year) are the same ones that will have a larger number of ballots cast. Whether these wealthier individuals gravitate to Clawson for his business background, or move against him to his bad business dealings, remains to be seen.
This suburban Republican district has seen a flurry of spending in this race, something that it is unlikely to see again in the near future. The winner will be damaged, but the Republican nature of the district makes it a very unlikely pickup opportunity. A suburban, upper income district like CD19 has little “elasticity;” — a willingness to cross party lines and vote in a bipartisan manner. The last time the district voted Democrat was Bill Nelson against Katherine Harris in 2006, which was a statewide blowout for the Democrat. You can read more about elasticity here..
So what will this race mean for the continued GOP civil war between the establishment and the tea party? Its hard to say just yet. If Clawson has a narrow win or loses to Benacquisto, then his support will be largely attributed to his self-funding abiliy. However, if Clawson has a large win, coming close to 50%, then it can be assumed that even without self-funding he would be have been a contender thanks to his anti-establishment support. Including all outside money, he appears to be the largest spender or tied with Benacquisto. A narrow win would mean anti-establish sentiment wasn’t enough to propel him to victory and that it took his fortune to push him over the top. We won’t know what this means for the GOP establishment until all the votes are counted Tuesday night.
Election Results Update
As expected, Curt Clawson beat out Senator Benacquisto in the Republican primary. Clawson got 38% of the vote to Benacquisto’s 25% and Kreegel’s 25%. By all accounts, the “establishment” got just over 50% of the vote considering both Kreegel and Benacquisto spent time in the state legislature. Clawson won a plurality while self-funding his election, not an overwhelming mandate. Turnout-wise, Collier has slightly higher turnout than Lee. 37% to 33%. Lee still dominated the votes cast, with over 70% coming from Lee and under 30% from Collier.
Benacquisto got very little support outside of Lee county. She came in a distant third in Collier, only gathering 15%. What most striking about this was that Kreegel did so much better in Collier despite his old house seat being in northern Lee county. Benacquisto, meanwhile, also lost Lee by 5 points, and only won the region in her state senate district by 260 votes, 32% to 31.2%.
Clawson was much stronger in Collier and Southern Lee. Benacquisto won Fort Meyers and split Cape Coral. He representation in the Senate definitely helped her mitigate loses in northern Lee, but she was decimated outside areas she represented in the past. The results aren’t good for Benacquisto’s future in terms of a congressional run. She is now doubt weaker and less popular than before this run, and someone like Kreegel could be a bigger threat absent a self-funder. Benacquisto’s would do well to serve out her Senate tenure (which could go till 2020) and revisit a promotion then.