FORT MYERS, Fla. (AP) — Florida-based construction magnate Francis Rooney has spent millions trying to get Republicans elected — Mitt Romney, John McCain and Jeb Bush all received sizeable donations. This time he’s spending $3.1 million of his nearly billion-dollar fortune on a new candidate: himself.
The former ambassador to the Vatican is running against a city councilman, Chauncey Goss, the son of former CIA Director Porter Goss, who represented the 19th Congressional District from 1989 to 2004. He also faces Dan Bongino, a former Secret Service agent, author and TV commentator, in the Aug. 30 Republican primary.
The winner will be a heavy favorite to defeat Democrat Robert Neeld in November — Republicans outnumber Democrats nearly 2-to-1 in the district.
Florida is seeing its liveliest congressional campaign season in years due to a recent redistricting widely seen as eroding advantages for incumbents. The changes mean that, overall, Democrats could pick up House seats within the state’s strongly Republican delegation.
The 19th District covers Naples, Fort Myers and surrounding communities, which rely heavily on tourism, construction and retirees. The area is also facing a serious crisis as its waterways have become infested with toxic algae, which all three Democrats say is the race’s top local issue. The candidates are vying to replace Republican Rep. Curt Clawson, who unexpectedly announced in May he would not seek re-election for family reasons.
Rooney’s money and endorsements from his Naples neighbor, Gov. Rick Scott, and former U.S. Sens. Connie Mack and Mel Martinez have made him the race’s presumed favorite, but his opponents see him as beatable.
“People don’t like people who try to buy an election,” Bongino said.
Rooney said he’s grown tired of funding candidates but seeing few results. His company, Manhattan Construction Group, built the U.S. Capitol Visitors Center, the Dallas Cowboys and Texas Rangers stadiums, and the presidential libraries of George W. and George H.W. Bush. If elected, he would be Congress’ wealthiest member — a fact he says proves he gets things done.
“My dad died when I was 26, and the only thing he left me was a construction company that was on its back and having trouble paying its bills. My brother and I took it over and tried to rebuild it,” said Rooney, 62.
Bongino, 41, left the Secret Service in 2011 after leading a team that organized security for presidential visits overseas. He has written two best-selling books and been a substitute host on Sean Hannity’s national radio show and on a local conservative talk show. This has given him a base among local tea party conservatives even though he moved to Florida just last year.
Bongino got beaten handily as the Republican nominee for Senate in Maryland in 2012, but narrowly lost a congressional bid in 2014. Bongino won’t discuss his move in detail, saying it was a family health matter.
He said his Secret Service career gives him the doggedness needed to succeed in Washington.
Goss, a member of the Sanibel city council, worked as a Bush administration and House budget staffer for eight years before returning to the area to open a consulting firm. He stresses his deep roots in the community, something he says his opponents lack.
Rooney and Bongino “are both somewhat interlopers trying to capitalize on the fact there is an open seat,” Goss said.
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