Curt Clawsons win on Tuesday night in a special congressional primary is just the latest example of how the tea party movement has changed the Republican Party in Florida.
Clawson didnt win because hes a conservative. Every candidate who ran in the primary claimed to be a conservative. Sure, some big-name conservatives like Rand Paul and Michele Bachmann were on the Clawson bandwagon, but other prominent Republicans stood against him. Lizbeth Benacquisto had the likes of Sarah Palin and Mike Huckabee endorsing her.
Like a host of Republicans across Florida in recent elections, Clawson reached into his own pocket to fund his campaign. The Florida businessman also stressed he was an outsider, someone who had never held political office before and it paid off dividends.
The tea party movement doesnt just stand against politics as usual. It stands against politicians as usual, and highly regarded and well-known Republicans have been paying the price. Back in 2010, Rick Scott hitched his political star to the tea party and won because he wasnt a career politician. After more than three decades in Florida politics, Bill McCollum simply couldnt appear to be anything else than politics as usual. The same held true in the attorney generals race that year where political rookie Pam Bondi beat out familiar Tallahassee figures Jeff Kottkamp and Holly Benson.
Even as the tea party took some hits nationally, it still remained a force in GOP politics in Florida in 2012. When Florida Republicans met to hold a presidential straw poll in Orlando, they went with Herman Cain instead of Rick Perry or Mitt Romney. Political novice Trey Radel beat out a bunch of politicians to win the congressional seat thats now Clawsons to lose. Electoral newcomer Ron DeSantis defeated a crowded Republican primary full of former officeholders. In the biggest political upset Floridas seen in years, large animal veterinarian Ted Yoho defeated Cliff Stearns, who had been in Congress for 24 years.
Its simply not enough in some Republican primaries to be a conservative. GOP primary voters have shown time and time again over the last four years that they are searching for alternatives outside of elected officials. Clawsons win over Benacquisto and Paige Kreegel on Tuesday night is just the latest in a series of victories for businessmen over familiar faces in Republican primaries across Florida.
Its something to keep in mind this year as Republican officeholders face primary challenges in congressional and legislative races. This trend could continue down the road as Republicans face presidential, Senate, gubernatorial, Cabinet and congressional primaries in 2016 and 2018. Five years after the birth of the tea party movement, Florida Republicans continue to back outsiders over established politicians in the primaries and, based on Clawsons and David Jollys primary wins, this trend shows no signs of stopping.
Tallahassee-based political writer Jeff Henderson wrote this analysis exclusively for Sunshine State News.