The 19th Congressional District in southwest Florida is solidly Republican and has been since it was created in 1972. Vacant since Rep. Trey Radel (R) resigned in January following his arrest for buying cocaine from an undercover cop, the winner of today’s GOP primary will likely be the district’s next House member. But it’s been a bit of a nasty and personal skirmish, filled with negative TV commercials.
The apparent frontrunner is Curt Clawson, a manufacturing executive who has been self-financing his campaign. He has the support of several tea party groups, as well as Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), a likely 2016 presidential candidate. Clawson and the other leading candidates — state Senate Majority Leader Lizbeth Benacquisto and former state Rep. Paige Kreegel — are all conservatives who vow to dismantle the Affordable Care Act. With no real ideological differences to speak of, Clawson’s opponents have latched onto the fact that he had a business deal regarding property he owned in Utah with a convicted sex offender — something Clawson says he didn’t know until it was reported to him. Benacquisto, Kreegel and the other Republican in the race, Michael Dreikorn, released a joint statement saying, “We stand together to put politics aside to address some very serious questions that have been raised.”
For his part, Clawson and his allies — notably Connie Mack IV, who held the seat until he gave it up for an unsuccessful Senate run in 2012 — are charging that factions of the state party are illegally pumping money into the campaign of Benacquisto, who has the backing of Sarah Palin and Mike Huckabee. Palin has called Benacquisto a fellow “mama grizzly.”
Kreegel ran in 2012 but lost the primary to Radel.
The winner of today’s primary will go into the special June 24 general election against Democrat April Freeman as the clear favorite. Polls close at 7 pm Eastern time.
Here’s a list of those who held the seat since its creation in 1972; all are Republicans in what is an overwhelmingly GOP area:
L.A. Skip Bafalis (1973-82). Bafalis, a former state senator who ran for governor in the 1970 GOP primary, won in a landslide. He gave up his seat in 1982 to run again for governor but got crushed by Democratic incumbent Bob Graham.
Connie Mack III (1983-88). Five Republicans were in the race to succeed Bafalis, a primary won by Mack in his first attempt at public office. A former bank president and grandson of the legendary manager of the old Philadelphia Athletics, Mack supported the ERA as well as the laws that affirm abortion rights, positions that separated himself from the rest of the GOP field. He needed a runoff to win the Republican nomination, but after that there was no problem for him in the general. He gave up the seat in 1988 to run for the Senate, which he won.
Porter Goss (1989-2004). Goss, a former Lee County commissioner, squared off with Bafalis, who was seeking a comeback and had only recently moved back to the district. Bafalis accused Goss of not being sufficiently conservative, while Goss said Bafalis voted to cut Social Security when he was in the House. Goss beat Bafalis in the runoff by a nearly 3-1 margin. Goss, the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, resigned in September 2004 to become President Bush’s director of the CIA. He had already announced he wasn’t going to seek another term.
Connie Mack IV (2005-2012). When Goss announced his retirement in 2003, Mack, who had been representing a Fort Lauderdale district in the state House, quit and moved west to the district his father used to represent. The move opened him up to carpetbagging charges, and his GOP opponents dismissed him as a lightweight. Nonetheless, he raised a ton of money and blanketed the district with TV ads. He barely got the most votes in the primary, but with runoffs in Florida having been eliminated in 2002, a plurality is all he needed. He won the seat and served until leaving for an unsuccessful Senate bid against Democratic incumbent Bill Nelson in 2012.
Trey Radel (2013-14). Radel was a radio and TV talk show host when he won Mack’s open seat in 2012. He resigned in January 2014.