In a sign of a tough party donnybrook, a Republican political committee and the state GOP are feuding over rival ads tied to the congressional race to replace Rep. Trey Radel, who resigned his seat Monday amid a cocaine scandal.
At the heart of the dispute: announced candidate Paige Kreegel, backed by the Values are Vital political committee, and state Republican Senate leader Lizbeth Benacquisto, who's considering a bid for Radel's seat.
Benacquisto is spending about $500,000 in state Senate campaign money on ads. Values are Vital countered with its own ads that calls her "bait-and-switch Benacquisto" for trying to boost her name ID and get around a federal ban on spending corporate money for congressional campaigns.
Last week, the Republican Party of Florida weighed in on Benacquisto's behalf and told local TV stations to pull the "patently false" ads from Values are Vital. The committee, in turn, defended the spots and attacked RPOF.
“This letter from the Republican Party of Florida is no more than an attempt to chill the First Amendment Rights of Values Are Vital to engage in protected political discourse regarding the motivations underlying Senator Benaquisto’s recent advertising campaign,”’ the committee’s attorney, Mark Herron, wrote the TV stations. **(Note: letters below)
The squabble is but the opening salvo in what’s set to be a tough and potentially vicious Republican Party intramural squabble. Gov. Rick Scott plans to call a special election now that Radel announced he's quitting in reaction to the fallout over his cocaine bust last year.
Former Congressman Connie Mack has talked to others about potentially running for the Fort Myers-based seat he used to have and former candidate Chauncey Goss hasn't ruled out a bid, either.
The consultant for Values are Vital, longtime Republican Roger “Rockie” Pennington, is a past consultant for Kreegel’s campaigns. Now that he works for the independent political committee, he isn’t supposed to coordinate with Kreegel or his congressional campaign under federal rules.
Pennington said he isn’t breaking the law and hasn’t spoken with or coordinated any campaign activities with Kreegel.
Another potential issue with the Values are Vital ads, a consultant affiliated with the committee improperly filled out a TV station disclosure sheet by saying the spot targeting Benacquisto isn’t political.
“That was a mistake,” Pennington said. “We checked the wrong box.”
Rather than back down, Pennington said, “maybe we need to step it up” and spend more money calling out Benacquisto.
The state party’s spokeswoman, Susan Hepworth, said Benacquisto isn’t an announced congressional candidate and that the Republican Party will defend its state Senate majority leader from being attacked.
"Leader Benacquisto is a respected voice and effective representative of her constituents in District 30, and we look forward to her continued service,” Hepworth said in a statement. The ad being run against the Senator is patently false and we will not tolerate that kind of misinformation to permeate."
Pennington said the state party is involving itself improperly.
“Everyone knows Benacquisto is running for Congress but she’s running ads with her state Senate campaign money – corporate money, which she can’t spend to run for congress,” Pennington said.
“When she drains that account of the last penny, she’ll then officially run for Congress,” Pennington said. “There’s the spirit of the law and the letter of the law. And she’s breaking the spirit of the law by using corporate contributions to run for Congress.”
** Download RPOF letter
** Download Values are Vital letter