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U.S. Rep. Trey Radel's GOP primary nightmare: FL Sen. Republican leader Lizbeth Benacquisto


Connie Mack might do it and win. Paige Kreegel would put up a tough fight. Gary Aubuchon could run, too. Or Chauncey Goss.

But few potential Republican challengers to embattled U.S. Rep. Trey Radel are as threatening as Lizbeth Benacquisto of Fort Myers.

The Florida Senate's Republican leader, Benacquisto is telegenic, a prodigious fundraiser, a good public speaker, is well-liked by colleagues on both sides of the aisle in the state Capitol, and she represents and lives in much of Radel's district.

Perhaps most importantly, Benacuisto is something none of the other guys is.... not a guy.

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.

Will Benacquisto run for congress in 2014?

With Radel's hometown newspapers and constituents calling on him to resign after his cocaine bust, some Republicans in the state capitol and Benacquisto's district are urging her to do it. She couldn't be reached.

Radel won't quit right now. He said he's going into "intensive" therapy, that he's going on leave for an indeterminate period of time and that he'll donate his salary to charity in that time.

Benacquisto is cautious. She might have to consider facing Mack.

Word from some connected to Washington say that allies of former Congressman Connie Mack, who vacated the seat in an unsuccessful run for U.S. Senate, are trying to line up House leadership support for his return to CD-19. Mack can raise money.

But so can Benacquisto.

Though state contribution rules are more-permissive than federal limits (Florida allows soft-money contributions from corporations), Benacquisto has nevertheless amassed just under $400,000 in $500 increments. The federal contribution limit is $2,600; so Benacquisto could go back to many donors and hit them up for far more. Also, as a sitting state legislator whom national Republicans appear to want to support, Benacquisto can leverage her office more. And state leaders in Tallahassee would be sure to pitch in with an outside soft-money group to support her or at least attack Radel.

Lastly, she can simply spend her money and ostensibly campaign as a state senator while she really runs for Congressional District 19.

Mack isn't a current office holder. And Radel, meanwhile, is heading to rehab and a possible leave of absence, where fundraising isn't so easy.

Mack is letting us know he's out there, sending out the following statement after Radel's 10:30 p.m. press conference tonight: "I certainly hope Trey gets the help he needs. Time and his own actions will determine whether the people are willing to give him a second chance."

If it's just the guys, Mack holds the edge by far. But Benacquisto changes the calculus.

As for popularity and representation, Benacquisto's Senate District 30 encompasses much of Congressional District 19. SD-30 represents much of urban Lee County, except for the more-rural Southeast portion. CD-19 covers much of Lee as well, except for the rural northeast. CD-19 also extends southward into Naples, which Benacquisto doesn't represent.

But the Naples-Fort-Myers media market is one. And she likely has reasonable or residual positive name ID following her 2012 race, when she captured 62.3 percent of the vote. Radel won 62 percent of the vote in his general election race (he got slightly more votes, 66,039, than she did because the district is bigger and has more voters).

Collier County accounted for only 26 percent of the vote in 2012, so most of the district is already in Benacquisto's Senate seat. In its sensibilities, the southern half of CD-19 in Collier County is filled with wealthy retirees who likely would be receptive to voting in an accomplished woman and voting out a congressman with a coke problem.

As a former TV reporter, Radel was recognizable. But now he's infamous: the first congressman convicted of cocaine possession. Though an incumbent, he's a political newcomer without a deep political network.

This is a red Republican district that President Obama lost by more than 21 percentage points in a state the Democrat won by a point overall. A GOP congressional primary here would heavily focus on values and personal issues.

But old election numbers, maps and fundraising figures aren't direct predictors of a politician's actions or a political campaign.

Radel is still imploding. He might quit. He might not. If he doesn't, she and others like Mack don't want to appear to be like scavengers.

"There are a lot of vultures that come out," said former state Rep. Gary Aubuchon, who ran against Radel in the GOP primary last year. Aubuchon said he'd consider running again at a later date.

Aside from appearance, Benacquisto might not want to give up a guaranteed Senate seat where she can make a difference in Tallahassee in order to be a DC back-bencher in one of the most-despised institutions in the United States: Congress.

But then, maybe she'll think she can make the place a little better by replacing Radel.