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Amid Radel resignation, Lizbeth Benacquisto heads to DC for talks, sounds ready to run for Congress

@MarcACaputo

With the resignation of her congressman in a cocaine scandal, Florida's state Senate Republican leader Lizbeth Benacquisto is heading to Washington to speak with Republican political operatives and financiers this week as she considers running for the Fort Myers-based seat.

Benacquisto wouldn't discuss the specifics about whom she's meeting or whether she'll definitely run, but she issued a written statement that showed she's strongly considering a congressional bid now that Rep. Trey Radel said he's stepping down Monday.

The statement:

"Today I want to recognize and commend Trey for making the right decision. He has acknowledged that his recovery requires a focus solely on his health and the well being of his family. Trey, his wife Amy, and their precious son have been and will remain in my prayers. This announcement also makes it clear that Southwest Florida families will soon choose a new voice to represent them in Congress. I will consider the best way I can be of service to Florida and our region. This includes talking to my neighbors, my friends, and my family to seek their guidance moving forward.”

Benacquisto already started spending her state Senate campaign money on TV ads. Because a good chunk of that money is from corporate interests who are generally banned from funding congressional campaigns, strategists and her opponents view the move as an end-run around a federal candidate spending so-called "soft money."

Former state Rep. Paige Kreegel is already running for the seat, and a political committee touting his candidacy has criticized Benacquisto for running the ads.

Kreegel originally representatted Charlotte County, which isn't in Congressional District 19. A far greater share of the congressional district is already being represented by Benacquisto.

Also giving Benacquisto an edge: She's telegenic, a prodigious fundraiser, a good public speaker and she's well-liked by colleagues on both sides of the aisle in the state Capitol. Also, as a woman, Benacquisto would add a little more diversity to the overwhelmingly male-dominated House GOP.

In a political party struggling to have female faces and voices, Benacquisto is the face of the GOP's rebranding effort. The Republican State Leadership Committee in May announced her appointment as an advisory board member of their "Right Women, Right Now" program to recruit, support and elect new women candidates to state level offices across the country.

UPDATE:

Here's Kreegel's statement: 

“I know the last several months have been trying for Trey and his family. But today, he did the right thing for the people he represents and provided all of us a chance to move forward without the distractions of the past.

The people of Southwest Florida deserve principled, conservative leadership. That’s why I announced my candidacy a few weeks ago and began my campaign to bring that type of leadership back to the 19th District of Southwest Florida.

From ObamaCare, to Washington’s out-of-control spending, to the breaches of national security, the issues facing our country are serious matters that deserve serious representation,” said Kreegel. “Southwest Florida should expect a Congressman who can lead, a Congressman without distractions, and a Congressman they can trust.

As I’ve stated before, character and integrity still matter in politics. It’s not the mistakes a person makes but how they handle those mistakes. I want to thank Trey for his service and wish him well in whatever path his future holds.”

Kreegel ran for Congress previously in 2012. His conservative legislative record and his knowledge and expertise in the health care industry, provides the voters a clear choice to represent them in Washington. “It’s time to move forward. I will focus on common-sense solutions that are based on conservative principles and conservative values.”

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