The southwest Florida Republican hierarchy did not want Trey Radel to be a congressman, fearing the former right-wing radio talk-jock would be an embarrassment in Washington D.C.
I guess they were right.
The southwest Florida campaign trail was a strange place in 2012. I ran for a Lee County commission seat and lost. Radel ran for the District 19 Congressional seat and won. District 19 is most of Lee County and coastal Collier County, so Radel and I were at many of the same events. It was strange time for me because I walked the trail as a candidate, not as a reporter as I had so many times before.
But that wasn’t the only reason.
Radel was one of six Republicans looking to replace Connie Mack, who was moving on to run against Sen. Bill Nelson. Dark horse Joe Davidow was on the ballot, and Naples banker Byron Donalds had his supporters, but the party faithful schooled mostly around former State Representatives Gary Aubuchon and Paige Kreegel and Chauncey Goss, the son of former Congressman and CIA chief Porter Goss.
The wild card was Radel, and he scared the establishment Republicans to death. He had some name recognition, based first on his stint as a reader of TV news and then on his time on local talk radio.
Radel polled consistently at around 30 percent before the election.
Party leaders were afraid that the presence of three mainstream candidates on the primary ballot would split what was expected to be a paltry turnout, leaving Radel to ride the Tea Party vote into the General Election.
Each of the three mainstream candidates, any of whom was far more palatable to the party leadership than Radel, got a visit. Each of them, Aubuchon, Goss and Kreegel, was asked to step aside.
None would blink.
I haven’t gone back to the people who told me the three were approached. I heard the story a lot, and from solid sources. When you’ve spent most of three decades as a reporter people tell you things. I am a registered Republican myself, though I ran without party.
The way they explained it was the Radel voters would be Radel voters regardless. Their belief was Radel couldn’t beat any of the other three face to face, and if any of the three dropped out his supporters would go to one of the other two. The fear was Radel’s Tea Party faithful could carry him through a fractured Primary.
The Primary played out precisely as the party leaders had feared. Only 30-some percent of the district’s GOP voters went to the polls. Radel’s passionate 30 percent came through, as he got 32 percent of the vote. The other 68 percent of District 19 Republicans chose someone else.
If any one of the other major candidates had backed down southwest Florida might have been spared Trey Radel.
What happened next was sad, but predictable. Radel stood against Democrat Jim Roach, a Vietnam vet and retired GM researcher. Roach is intelligent and well-spoken, but not Republican. No non-Republican has won a partisan southwest Florida election since the 1980’s.
The party hierarchy held its collective nose, ignored the pornographic domain names Radel’s company had registered and the phony sites he’d set up to lampoon his opponents and circled the wagons around ‘their’ candidate. Reliably Republican Lee County and even more reliably Republican Collier simply searched out the ‘R’ on the ballot and made their mark. They sent Radel to Washington.