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Politics

Republicans Flock to Fill Connie Mack's Congressional Seat

February 15, 2012 - 6:00pm

A large field of Republicans is vying to succeed U.S. Senate candidate Connie Mack in one of the most staunchly GOP congressional districts in Florida.

Spanning Lee County and the coastal strip of Collier County, the tentatively designated CD 19 has attracted a host of contenders, but only a handful have the name recognition and financial wherewithal to wage serious campaigns.

Of the 11 GOP candidates who have filed with the Federal Election Commission, just five listed any campaign contributions during the latest reporting period.

In this race of "haves" and "have-nots," three current officeholders, a Washington, D.C., budget cruncher and a former radio talk-show host figure to be the top contenders in the Aug. 14 primary.

Taking them in alphabetical order:

State Rep. Gary Aubuchon, R-Cape Coral, blends political and business experience. Founder of a home-building company, he was appointed to Jeff Kottkamp's seat when Kottkamp become lieutenant governor under Charlie Crist.

"This election is about who will be able to change the way government does business.I believe voters will look past fancy campaign slogans and elect a business leader with real-world experience in creating jobs, balancing budgets, cutting taxes and holding government accountable," Aubuchon says.

Being from Cape Coral, the largest city in the congressional district, gives Aubuchon a built-in political base.

Chauncey Goss, a first-time candidate, benefits from family name recognition. Goss's father, Porter Goss, represented the region in Congress from 1989-2004 before becoming director of national security, then director of the CIA.

Growing up in Lee County and now living on Sanibel Island, Goss has worked as a national security analyst for the Office of Management and Budget and as deputy staff director for the House Budget Committee chaired by Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis., who has endorsed him.

"I have 10 years of experience in Washington, D.C. I know the process, the staff and the structure there," Goss says.

Lee County Commissioner Tammy Hall holds the distinction of being the only candidate in the field to win a contested election in the district.

Owner of a marketing consulting firm and a former Fort Myers city councilwoman, Hall says she has worked to attract and retain businesses in Lee County, "dealing hands on, not arm's length."

On the County Commission since 2004, Hall notes, "Lee has continued to lower taxes through the recession."

State Rep. Paige Kreegel, R-Punta Gorda, hails from Charlotte County, just north of the new district boundaries. But the physician is a prodigious fundraiser and owns a home in Estero.

Term-limited at the Legislature, Kreegel has the endorsement of Lee County Sheriff Mike Scott. And striking an anti-establishment tone, Kreegel said Republican voters are "sick of the impasse (on Capitol Hill) and the bad stuff coming out of their own party."

Trey Radel is a familiar name from his days as a reporter and talk-show host in Fort Myers. Making his first run for public office, Radel promises to provide "a bold conservative voice."

Though he is a relatively late entrant to the race, Radel projects "strong" contribution numbers in March. He says his wife, who grew up in Cape Coral, will bolster his campaign.

"People are fed up with career politicians," Radel says, opining that the large field of candidates reflects restlessness in the electorate. "It's infuriating that people say some shouldn't be running."

Naples attorney Joe Davidow leads the list of second-tier candidates, whose ranks include John Sawyer, Thomas Scherer, Byron Donalds, Bryan Owens and Dan Benton.

Whoever wins the GOP primary will be the de facto winner of the seat, since the district has a +15 voter-registration advantage for the Republicans.

Early surveys have shown Aubuchon, Hall and Radel leading the pack, and tea party leader Geoff Ross gives the edge to Aubuchon.

"Aubuchon has the stronger hand and he also has business experience and political savvy," Ross said.

But another tea activist, who declined to be identified, calls Kreegel "the conservative who is not afraid to stand up for the little guy."

Bucking the GOP establishment, Kreegel was one of Rick Scott's earliest supporters at a time when Bill McCollum was the party favorite. Kreegel's move and his outspokenness haven't always endeared him to fellow Republicans.

Kreegel is unfazed. Reportedly holding more than $100,000 in cash on hand, the lawmaker said, "I'm in front on money and I intend to stay in front."

Seana Sugrue, a professor of politics at Ave Maria University outside of Naples, said it's too early to declare a favorite in what she calls "a lively and crowded race" where the winner of the primary is "virtually guaranteed victory in the general election."

"For that reason, a lot of talent tends to emerge, but so does a lot of intra-party mudslinging," Sugrue said.

Contact Kenric Ward at kward@sunshinestatenews.com or at (772) 801-5341.

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