Tea Party support looks tepid in Florida Congressional race to replace Trey Radel

10:36 AM, Feb 16, 2014   |    comments
From left: State Sen. Lizbeth Benacquisto, former state Rep. Paige Kreegel, Curt Clawson and Michael Dreikorn
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Fort Myers, Florida (News-Press) -- Republicans running in the 19th Congressional District special election could find it harder to get organized tea party support than Trey Radel did in 2012.

"I think that the tea party will have an impact, but it won't necessarily be the impact it had in the primary election two years ago," said FGCU political science professor Peter Bergerson. "And I think voters are going to look at it individually."

In 2012, the Lee County Patriots endorsed Radel, then a conservative radio talk show host, in the primary and straight into the office.

But similar support likely won't be forthcoming for any of the five Republican candidates - big-name or grass-roots - who've announced intentions to run in the special election for the seat vacated by Radel. His January resignation came several months after his arrest and guilty plea for cocaine possession.

The special election is April 22, followed by the general election June 24. The deadline to qualify is Feb. 26.

State Sen. Lizbeth Benacquisto, former state Rep. Paige Kreegel and political newcomers Curt Clawson, Michael Dreikorn and Gerald Gallagher have announced their candidacies.

Early in Radel's campaign, tea party-associated group Lee County Patriots had already expressed its support for him.

"I can't think of anybody in our group who wasn't behind Trey," Chairwoman Kathy Jones said.

But two years later, the group meets socially and relies on newsletters to communicate. And it's unlikely that same support will be behind any one candidate.

"I have a feeling the votes will be more spread around this time," Jones said.

The Naples Tea Party didn't wholly support Radel in 2012, and it probably won't for a candidate this time around, former leader Lavigne Kirkpatrick said.

The group has "pretty much dissolved itself," he said, though the Naples area still has other active groups.

And people who identify as tea partiers differ in their opinions of whether political experience or inexperience is the better trait.

While some members believe a political newcomer - like Radel was - will be better for the seat, others think the track records of Kreegel and Benacquiosto will help inform their voting.

"My personal preference would be someone who is not a politician, but of course it's tough once you get to D.C.," Jones agreed.

And in the same way local tea party groups are different than in 2012, so, too, are candidates' plans to connect with them.

"The candidates will be courting the tea party but it won't be so open, won't be so obvious," Bergerson said.

Republican candidates reached by The News-Press said while tea party is one important part of their campaign and one they share values with, they aren't the only part.

"People here are primarily like-minded in their conservative values," said Dreikorn. But he added that though he isn't a member of the tea party, he supports the organization.

Benacquisto issued a written statement that her campaign "welcomes the support and assistance of all conservatives who want to fix Washington and take on the status quo," while Kreegel's campaign wrote he "needs the support of all conservatives" and "won't be exclusively campaigning to them."

Clawson, too, who has styled himself as the "outsider candidate," believes his views "will resonate with all sorts of conservatives," Communications Director Matt Hurley said. Clawson will spell out that message to at least one tea party group, though - he is to speak Friday with the Lee County Patriots on Pine Island.

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