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Florida race highlights shadowy role of Super PACs

BY Domenico Montanaro, Terence Burlij, Rachel Wellford and Simone Pathe  April 22, 2014 at 9:18 AM EDT
Republicans Curt Clawson, state Senate Majority Leader Lizbeth Benacquisto and state Rep. Paige Kreegel are vying for a chance to compete for Florida's 19th congressional district left vacant by Rep. Trey Radel.

Republicans Curt Clawson, state Senate Majority Leader Lizbeth Benacquisto and state Rep. Paige Kreegel are vying for a chance to compete for Florida’s 19th congressional district left vacant by Rep. Trey Radel.

Today in the Morning Line:

The Morning Line

  • Nasty Florida special election highlights super PAC, personal money
  • Obama Asia trip complicated by other events
  • Biden in Ukraine
  • Checking in with the Kentucky Senate primary

Radel replacement — establishment vs. personal wealth: Voters in southwest Florida’s 19th congressional district head to the polls Tuesday to elect candidates to replace resigned Republican Rep. Trey Radel. Radel, the freshman member who was caught buying cocaine in Washington, D.C., the first member of Congress to hold that dubious distinction. The primary, which will likely decide Radel’s replacement because of its heavy Republican tilt, has been called one of the nastiest in the region’s history and has been marred by negative advertising, according to the Naples Daily News. With a whopping $4 million spent on TV ads, the race between state establishment candidates and a moneyed outsider is also shining a light on the shadowy world of super PACs.

The favorite appears to be Curt Clawson, a former auto executive, with state Senate Majority Leader Lizbeth Benacquisto second. Clawson has spent almost $3 million of his own money on the race, but super PACs have spent about $2 million supporting Benacquisto and state Rep. Paige Kreegel. Benacquisto has benefited from $667,000 from the patriotic-sounding Liberty and Leadership Fund. Another group, Values Are Vital, has spent $1.3 million for Kreegel. Benacquisto denies any connection to Liberty and Leadership, but as National Journal reports, “it has the same address as her own PAC, Alliance For a Strong Economy.” And Clawson accused Kreegel of illegally coordinating with Values Are Vital, run by a close Kreegel friend, an allegation Kreegel denies and for which Clawson provided no evidence. Neither PAC has spent any money in any other race in the country. It’s something to watch — whether these kinds of candidate-specific PACs crop up, particularly in primaries, as ways around fundraising limits. There hasn’t been a lot of good polling in this race, but two automated polls put Clawson ahead, one by double-digits and an earlier one showing him up by mid-single digits. Sarah Palin and Mike Huckabee have endorsed Benacquisto. Clawson is backed by Tea Party Express and Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky. Polls close at 7 p.m. EDT.

Obama goes to Asia: After stopping Tuesday in Oso, Wash., where 41 people were killed in a massive landslide last month, President Obama will continue on to Asia for a weeklong, four-country swing through Japan, South Korea, Malaysia and the Philippines. The trip comes as the president attempts to finalize an expansive new free-trade agreement between the U.S. and 11 other countries in the Asia-Pacific region. When it comes to the Trans-Pacific Partnership, the president faces hurdles at home and abroad. Action on the trade pact has stalled in Congress due to opposition from Democratic lawmakers, who contend the deal would result in lost jobs for American workers. Politico notes that the U.S. and Japan are “locked in a tough negotiation over longtime Japanese barriers to U.S. agriculture and automotive exports.” Beyond the trade agreement the president also faces questions about his commitment to putting a greater diplomatic focus on Asia. The New York Times’ David Sanger and Mark Landler write that the “rebalancing” effort has been sidetracked by crises elsewhere around the globe.

Biden in Ukraine: While Mr. Obama heads abroad, tensions are running high in Ukraine. Vice President Joe Biden is there to show support for the Kiev government, saying the U.S. would help it in the face of “humiliating threats” from Russia. That comes, as Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov accused Ukraine of violating the terms of the fragile peace deal, raising fears that Russia could go further. “Steps are being taken, above all by those who seized power in Kiev, not only that do not fulfill, but that crudely violate the Geneva agreement,” Lavrov said. Biden also warned Ukraine needs to fight corruption, noting the problem of Ukraine being tied to Russia economically for oil and raising the stakes for the May 25 election, saying it “may be the most important election in Ukrainian history.”

McConnell looks strong for primary home stretch: For all that’s been made of Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell’s primary challenge in Kentucky, he’s hitting the home stretch with under a month to go before the primary, in what appears to be pretty good shape. A poll out last month had him up nearly 40 points over conservative challenger Matt Bevin. McConnell outraised Bevin by a lot last quarter ($6.4 million to $514,000) and had a lot more cash on hand ($10.4 million to $455,000). Bevin lost his top spokeswoman, which is never a good sign. And McConnell’s up with an ad for the final month of the primary. There’s a reason he’s smiling. McConnell still appears to be in a tough race for the fall, with polls showing him essentially tied with Democratic Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes. But Democrats hoping McConnell would be hobbled by a tough primary look like they will be disappointed.

Daily Presidential Trivia: On this day in 1970, the United States observed the first Earth Day. President Nixon created the Environmental Protection Agency later that year. Who did Nixon appoint as the first director?
Be the first to Tweet us the correct answer @NewsHour, @rachelwellford, @DomenicoPBS, and you’ll get a Morning Line shout-out. No one guessed Yesterday’s trivia correctly. The answer was: 9 vice presidents.

LINE ITEMS

  • Sounds like a big deal… National Journal: “The Supreme Court will hear arguments Tuesday in a case that could shape the future of television and even the Internet.”
  • Neil Eggleston will replace Kathryn Ruemmler as the new White House counsel.
  • Sam Stein of the Huffington Post reports that Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., wants the White House to support his effort to bring back earmarks.
  • Tribune’s David Lauter writes that Mr. Obama’s approval ratings have improved as the “health care drag eases.” His numbers do appear to have leveled off slightly, but they still are middling in the low to mid 40s.
  • Voters in Alaska will get a chance to vote on a minimum-wage increase and the legalization of marijuana this November.
  • FiveThirtyEight’s Harry Enten writes that Democrats shouldn’t get too comfortable with the party’s Electoral College advantage in recent cycles.
  • Rep. Tom Cotton highlights his military service in his latest positive spot in the Arkansas senate race. It’s likely the first ad featuring a drill sergeant.
  • The Democratic Governors Association has donated $500,000 — the largest contribution — to Charlie Crist’s political committee, proving, as Marc Cupoto writes in the Tampa Bay Times, that “this is real.”
  • National Journal finds that not a single Republican in Congress has mentioned Earth Day since 2010.
  • Senate Democrats are headed to Silicon Valley this week to raise funds for the midterms.
  • The U.S. Census Bureau is considering dropping some of their questions that some Americans find “nosy”.
  • New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie has been named Father of the Year by the the Father’s Day-Mother’s Day Council — for the entire country.
  • The Republican National Committee is looking to raise some coin off of former President George H.W. Bush’s socks.
  • Keep an eye on the Rundown blog for breaking news throughout the day, our home page for show segments, and follow @NewsHour for the latest.

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Questions or comments? Email Domenico Montanaro at dmontanaro-at-newshour-dot-org or Terence Burlij at tburlij-at-newshour-dot-org.

NewsHour Desk Assistant Chelsea Coatney contributed to this report.

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