Fort Myers, Florida (News-Press) -- Slam dunk.
Basketball-player-turned-businessman Curt Clawson scored big Tuesday night to win the Republican nomination for the District 19 congressional seat vacated by Trey Radel, snagging 38.25 percent of the vote.
State Sen. Lizbeth Benacquisto and former state Rep. Paige Kreegel were neck-and-neck in second place at 25.68 and 25.3 percent of the vote, followed by Michael Dreikorn with 10.77 percent.
"I think there's a certain amount of happiness but there's more of a sensation of responsibility and steward ship," said Clawson, 54, of Bonita Springs, after greeting hundreds of supporters gathered at the Hyatt Regency Coconut Point in Bonita Springs. "We need to make sure we don't let (voters) down."
Clawson will face Democrat April Freeman and Libertarian Ray Netherwood on June 24 in the general special election, but gaining the Republican nomination is big: Republicans have held the seat for decades.
It took just moments after the polls closed at 7 p.m. for Clawson's supporters to begin cheering and waving signs as early returns showed a strong lead.
As his former Purdue University coach Gene Keady spoke to the crowd, supporters in orange-and-blue T-shirts mingled, waved signs and played arcade basketball games set up in the corner.
By 7:45, the race was called for Clawson.
He received nearly half of the votes in Collier County — 46.49 percent. He led Benacquisto, with 15.57 percent, 3-to-1 in Collier County. Kreegel was the second-place, vote-getter in Collier County, receiving 31.83 percent of the vote.
The margin was smaller in Lee County, but Clawson won there, too, with 34.9 percent of the vote.
Benacquisto, who held an election night event at The Edison in Fort Myers, ended her festivities quickly after results began streaming in.
"I've called Curt. I've wished him well. I told him we would be good partners moving forward if he's successful in June, which I know he will be," Benacquisto said.
Kreegel held a private event at his Estero home.
Through an emailed statement from campaign manager Alex Melendez, Kreegel said: "This was a very competitive race and I congratulate Curt Clawson on his victory. The voters of District 19 have spoken, and I'm hopeful that, when elected, he will closely consider the values of Southwest Florida with every vote he casts."
Michael Dreikorn, who spent around $10,000, none of it on advertising, said he plans to run again in the August general election primary.
Clawson spent much of his speech Tuesday night asking for the support of his opponents' former supporters, and urging Republicans toward a more unified party.
Supporters held signs that said "#fl19 UNITY."
"We have done to each other what we should not have done," Clawson said of the negative advertising that dominated the campaign. "But we need to start supporting each other ... You are welcome here."
It was that negative advertising that appeared to turn off some voters.
Fort Myers voters Lewis and Mary Cooper chose not to vote for any of the candidates.
"I gotta say these people led probably the dirtiest campaign," Lewis Cooper, 89, said.
Even former Republican congressional candidate Chauncey Goss speculated about the negativity on Twitter.
"Just voted. Low turnout at my precinct (75 voted by noon). Negative campaign correlation?" he wrote on the social media site.
Southwest Florida's first glimpse of Clawson came in an ad that focused on his past as a Purdue University basketball player.
But it evolved as the campaign went on, and quickly started including information on his business background, especially his years as CEO at automotive wheel maker Hayes Lemmerz International.
He nabbed the endorsement of former congressman Connie Mack IV after adding his "Penny Plan" economic ideas to Clawson's own "five-point economic plan, which he touted as a way to grow the economy.
Along with Mack, Clawson received support from two national tea party PACs and Byron Donalds, a Collier County tea party leader who lost in the 2012 congressional primary, and the endorsement of U.S. Sen. Rand Paul.
Mack served as a sort of MC Tuesday night, while Donalds told the crowd that he met with Clawson "three or four times" before endorsing him and never looked back.
Donalds' support is likely one factor why Clawson did so well in Collier County. In his own bid for the congressional Republican nomination against Trey Radel, Donalds was the top vote-getter in Collier.
Clawson's near-instant visibility is also a reason for his quick rise from unknown to Republican congressional nominee.
Clawson started his campaign Super Bowl Sunday as an unknown but quickly established his willingness to spend big to get attention.
That first basketball-themed ad cost around $200,000 to air nationally, and Clawson continued the spending spree throughout his campaign, using $3.4 million of his own money and outspending his next-closest opponent, Benacquisto, two-to-one.
Clawson's campaign also spent the most on advertising — nearly $1.5 million to Benacquisto's $611,064 and Kreegel's $165,577 — according to Federal Election Commission records.
But Benacquisto and Kreegel also got a boost from several super-PACs, which they aren't allowed by law to communicate with but that spent millions supporting them through mostly negative advertising.
Through Tuesday, PACs had spent $2,615,325 in the District 19 race. And with a couple exceptions — about $120,000 from tea party groups for Clawson and around $8,000 that a Benacquisto-supporting PAC spent to boost Dreikorn's campaign — it was all from PACs supporting Benacquisto and Kreegel.
Only Dreikorn was immune from a barrage of allegations and half-truths via luridly phrased mailers and television ads.
RESULTS: 148 of 148 precincts reporting (100%)
Lizbeth Benacquisto 18,032 | 25.68%
Curt Clawson 26,857 | 38.25% (Winner)
Michael J. Dreikorn 7,560 | 10.77%
Paige Kreegel 17,762 | 25.3%
Total votes: 70,211
*Results from Florida Department of State, Division of Elections