FL-19: Super PAC refunds founders $1 million, Tea Party enters race at 11th hour

Picture of Republican candidate for Florida's 13th District, Curt Clawson
Curt Clawson has received last minute support from the Tea Party Express

It’s the home stretch for Republican candidates in Florida’s 19th Congressional District and the campaign finances are just as confusing as the political horse race.

In the last 48 hours we’ve learned:

  • Curt Clawson is his own biggest benefactor, giving $2.65 million to his own campaign.
  • A Tea Party group started by an experienced GOP strategist from California is backing Clawson as the former corporate executive defends himself over an apparent business relationship with a convicted pedophile.
  • The two biggest financiers behind a super PAC supporting one of Clawson’s rivals appear to be pulling out.

The candidates’ latest campaign filings arrived Thursday at the FEC. The highlights? Clawson has the biggest war chest courtesy of himself — personally accounting for nearly all of his campaign’s $2.87 million in receipts. As for his Republican competitors, Lizbeth Benacquisto’s campaign hauled in just under $1 million during the same stretch and Paige Kreegel raised a quarter of a million dollars. Outside political groups, however, have added serious spending into the race.

When news first broke that Rep. Trey Radel, R-Fla., had been caught with cocaine in Washington, a wealthy pair of donors who had backed Radel’s conservative opponent in 2012 saw an opening to elevate their man — former state Rep. Paige Kreegel — back into the fray for U.S. House district that covers a swathe of Florida’s southwest coast.

Ronald Firman, a Miami-based retiree, and Martin Burns, a lawyer based in Las Vegas, jumpstarted the Values are Vital super PAC with an initial cash infusion of just over $1 million and have since combined give over $2 million to the committee. The duo founded the committee with southwest Florida homebuilder Anthony Farhat who served as the committee’s first treasurer, though Firman has since transitioned into that role. A Thursday campaign disclosure from Values are Vital shows that Burns and Firman have been refunded $1 million.

On Feb. 4, Firman refunded himself $672,679 (out of $1.575 million total given) while Burns got back $435,000 out of his total $485,000 in donations.

In a phone interview with Sunlight, Firman declined to comment on the refund saying that he would not discuss it until after the election.

The PAC, which spent just over one million dollars on the race, was accused of illegal coordination of Kreegel by Republican primary challenger Clawson, though cell phone records provided to Sunlight’s Reporting Group show that Kreegel might have seen publicly available information rather than a tip from Values are Vital.

Now, with the April 22nd primary date looming, one of the nation’s largest Tea Party operations is entering the race on behalf of Clawson, a former college basketball player and manufacturing executive. The six-figure spending boost comes at a difficult time in Clawson’s candidacy, as he faces intense scrutiny over business dealings with a convicted pedophile in Utah.

The nonprofit State Tea Party Express — and its sister political committee the Tea Party Express — are the work of Republican consultant Sal Russo and are based out of Sacramento, Calif. The organization bills itself as the “most aggressive and influential national Tea Party group in the political arena” and in the 2014 cycle has publicly endorsed anti-establishment favorites like state Sen. Chris McDaniel in Mississippi, who is challenging veteran GOP incumbent Sen. Thad Cochran.1 Florida is not on the organization’s map of targeted races, but in a March 19 blog post the Express announced its formal backing of Clawson, touting his business background and “outsider” status.

Now, Tea Party Expresss is spending just under $100,000 on an ad blast set to hit radio, TV, the Internet and voters’ mailboxes from April 9 to 19.

The website for the “State” iteration of the Tea Party Express features multiple Youtube videos of ads from Clawson campaign and the candidate’s visage is prominently displayed on the site’s landing page. In an e-mail to Sunlight, Tea Party Express spokesman Taylor Budowich wrote, “We see this special election as a critical race for the Tea Party movement. There is clearly one Tea Party conservative candidates running against two establishment-type career politicians. It provides a perfect opportunity for our organization to get grassroots conservatives involved.”

Budowich would not comment as to the group’s future plans for the race or the reasoning behind the ads’ timing.

Benacquisto has her own outside benefactor: The Liberty and Leadership Fund has spent $477,602 on TV ads and direct mail supporting her candidacy.

On Wednesday, Benacquisto and Kreegel held a contentious joint press conference pressuring Clawson to reveal more details about his relationship with Glen Borst, the man convicted of sexually assaulting a child. “I met the person in question in the mid-1970s,” Clawson is quoted stating by the Naples News. “We lost track and had virtually no contact for decades. Then (his family) came to me in Utah and said we’d like to go in on an investment.”

Clawson’s YouTube page now features an ad from the victim’s mother criticizing the candidate’s opponents for reopening old wounds, adding that Clawson had nothing to do with their “private family ordeal.”