Huffpost Politics

Race To Replace Trey Radel Heats Up

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TREY RADEL
UNITED STATES - JANUARY 8: Rep. Trey Radel, R-Fla., leaves the House Republican Conference meeting in the basement of the Capitol on Wednesday, Jan. 8, 2014. Radel returned to Congress after pleading guilty to cocaine possession in November. (Photo By Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call) | Bill Clark via Getty Images

FORT MYERS, Fla. (AP) — The Republican voters of southwest Florida have either been entertained or appalled by the allegations made by the candidates seeking to replace their congressman, who resigned in January after being arrested for buying cocaine.

The campaign in the solidly GOP district to replace Trey Radel has been marred by allegations of connections to child sex offenders, questionable business dealings and negative attack ads.

The winner of Tuesday's special election will still likely defeat a Democratic challenger in the June 24 general election.

There are four candidates on the GOP ballot: Lizbeth Benacquisto, a 46-year-old state senator; Curt Clawson, a 54-year-old former CEO of an aluminum wheel company; Michael Dreikorn, a 52-year-old aerospace and defense consultant; and Paige Kreegel, a 55-year-old physician.

Benacquisto has been endorsed by former Alaska Governor Sarah Palin — who called Benacquisto a fellow "mama grizzly" who will protect southwest Florida.

Clawson has been endorsed by U.S. Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky, who called the former Purdue college basketball player "an outsider who will bring refreshing ideas to the halls of Congress."

As of Friday, Clawson had raised the most money. According to the Center for Responsive Politics — a nonpartisan research group that tracks money in politics — Clawson has raised $2.8 million. Benacquisto has raised about $980,000, while Kreegel has raised $236,000 and Dreikorn, $17,000.

A total of $2.1 million has been spent by outside groups — largely on attack ads.

Voters in the district — which includes most of Lee County and part of Collier County — have been exposed to a barrage of negative television ads, with Benacquisto, Clawson and Kreegel attacking each other's conservative credentials and background.

Other details about the candidates have emerged.

The Naples Daily News wrote about Clawson's background as CEO for the company Hayes Lemmerz. A 33-year-old worker for an aluminum plant owned by Hayes Lemmerz died after an explosion. The paper found that the company, which was being run at the time by Clawson, had been cited for safety problems by Indiana state regulators. The company also laid off workers and shut down seven U.S. plants, the paper reported.

Clawson's opponents have also tried to link him to a sex offender. Local media have reported that Clawson granted a man who pleaded guilty to four counts of attempted aggravated sexual abuse on a child a 30-day power of attorney to handle the mortgage for a home Clawson was purchasing in Utah.

Clawson's campaign said Clawson didn't know the man was a registered sex offender or that he had spent time in jail.

GOP voters seemed to be dismayed that they were going to the polls so soon after electing Radel, a popular Republican who won 63 percent of the vote in 2012.

Denise Carrier, a 60-year-old retiree, called the entire Radel scandal "a big disappointment."

She, too, was disgusted by the negative campaign ads, adding that she did like Clawson's ad that simply showed video of a sunset and the words "A break from attack ads from Lizbeth Benacquisto & Paige Kreegel's friends."

Carrier cast an early ballot for Clawson, but not because of the ad.

Pat Schroeder, a 64-year-old insurance broker, voted recently and said he chose Benacquisto because of her experience in the state Senate and because he feels Congress needs more female members.

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Follow Tamara Lush on Twitter at http://twitter.com/tamaralush

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