Representative Curt Clawson (R., Fla.) wanted a chance to face off against President Obama one-on-one. While it’s not in the setting he initially proposed, Tuesday night may be as close to that match-up as he will get.
Last week, it was announced that Clawson, a former college basketball standout and retired auto-parts executive, will deliver the Tea Party’s response to Obama’s State of the Union. Like Joni Ernst, the Iowa freshman senator picked to give the official Republican rebuttal, Clawson is a fairly new face on Capitol Hill: He was just elected to his first full term in Congress, after five months in the seat he captured in a special-election last June. With newcomer status and limited name recognition, Clawson is just as “shocked” as anyone to get the speaking slot, but feels he’s up to it.
“When they called us up, we were pretty surprised,” he tells National Review Online, admitting that he was initially hesitant to accept the invitation since he wasn’t looking for the limelight.
“Coming to Washington, you learn to have a thick hide,” Clawson explains in his consistently brash-but-upbeat tone. “You do something like this, you’re going to get whacked, and that’s not particularly pleasant, but we come to serve and put ourselves out there.”
Clawson learned that politics was a rocky affair from the get-go. Though he’d never intended to seek public office before, he jumped in to the race for the seat vacated by Representative Trey Radel, who resigned in January 2014 following an arrest for cocaine possession. The solidly red district attracted a bevy of Republican primary candidates, most formidable among them State Senate Majority Leader Lizbeth Benacquisto, who was deemed the favorite in the race. But even as tea-party rockstar Sarah Palin backed Benacquisto, so did most of the national and statewide Republican establishment, allowing Clawson to position himself as the political outsider and highlight his public-sector experience.
Clawson proved adept at cultivating his image as a quirky political neophyte. Early in the campaign, he distinguished himself with an ad that ran during the Super Bowl: A former Purdue University basketball co-captain in the 1980s, he challenged the president to a three-point shooting contest. As Clawson drains shots from behind the arc with his characteristic confidence, the ad intersperses clips of Obama’s infamous 2-for-22 outing on the court at the White House Easter Egg Roll. “Obama’s been missing a lot of shots lately . . . and not just on the basketball court,” he says in the TV spot, which went on to receive national attention for its unabashed peculiarity.
Momentum continued to build, and the Tea Party Express endorsed Clawson a month before the primary. With polls shifting his way, Benacquisto and two other Republican hopefuls started attacking him for his business ties to a convicted sex offender. As the other candidates were set to begin a joint press conference to show unified opposition to Clawson, he surprised his opponents and the press by showing up and commandeering the event, answering all reporters’ questions on the matter. Benacquisto and the other candidates later agreed to a ceasefire on the issue.
Within a week, Clawson received endorsements from Senator Rand Paul (R., Ky.) and Representative Michele Bachmann (R., Minn.), solidifying his grass-roots credibility. He won the primary by 13 points, and went on to win the special election in a landslide, which the Tea Party Express boasted as its first victory of 2014.
Since coming to Washington, Clawson has maintained his anti-establishment bona fides, demonstrating a notable disregard for the norms of Capitol Hill — and for appeasing party leaders. Unlike many of his colleagues, he shrugs off demands for fundraising, has “zero ambition” to climb the party ranks, and claims he hasn’t socialized with anyone “I haven’t known since my 20s” during his time in the Capitol. He caused headaches for leadership in two pre-recess legislative showdowns, pushing hard for defunding DACA in a border-security bill before Congress adjourned for its August break, and later opposing the cromnibus spending bill just before Christmas. And earlier this month, Clawson joined 24 other Republicans in voting against John Boehner’s reelection as speaker; instead, he voted for Paul, a move he admits was more symbolic than actually meaningful. While those votes haven’t made him popular with leadership, Clawson chalks up his decisions to doing what’s best for his constituents, and isn’t hesitant to bluntly admit his “naïveté” on political gamesmanship.
For that reason, he recognizes his selection is a departure from past tea-party responses, which have typically been used as a political launching pad for rising stars in the conservative populist movement. In its short, four-year history, the response has been given by marquee names such as Paul, Bachmann, Senator Mike Lee (R., Utah), and former presidential candidate Herman Cain, each of whom Clawson candidly admits he’s “not even close” to in name recognition. But the fact that Clawson isn’t a widely known figure doesn’t mean the Tea Party has lost any of its clout on Capitol Hill, warns Tea Party Express executive director Taylor Budowich.
“Ask Democrats if they think there’s a shortage of tea-party members in Congress,” he quips, calling this year’s slate of State of the Union responses evidence of the Tea Party’s staying power and growth. Clawson and Ernst represent voters’ sustained frustrations with Republican leadership in Congress, he says: Both lawmakers ran upstart campaigns that surprised party officials by knocking off the presumed favorite.
As the Tea Party prepares to confront the recent shifts in the political landscape, Budowich points to Clawson’s speech as a chance to further expand the movement’s brand. Three election cycles after its initial success in 2010, the Tea Party has to do more than preach to the choir — it now must look to broaden its support. And a former NCAA athlete and corporate executive who lived in five countries and is proficient in four foreign languages struck Budowich as the perfect messenger.
“He could be kicking back on the beautiful beaches of southwest Florida, but he looked and saw what many Americans were seeing, which is an America run amok,” Budowich says.
Meanwhile, Clawson rejects the spotlight the occasion will provide, and remains refreshingly forthright about his intentions for the evening. “One of my goals here [in Washington] was not to be on the national stage — I don’t care,” he says. “But we think the message of opportunity is for everyone, and we’d like to broaden the amount of people who will listen to the tea-party message. If that does a little bit of this, then that’d be okay with me.”
It’s been a whirlwind year for Clawson, who’s gone from never really considering political life to speaking on the same night as the president’s State of the Union. In each of the three chapters of his life — sports, business, and now politics — he’s learned not to try to predict what’s next, instead committing himself to the job his coaches, bosses, or constituents asked him to do.
“We didn’t anticipate this door would open, so we’re going to sprint as long as we’re there,” he says. “How I judge my experience in DC will be based on how much success we have. The rest of it? Who cares?”
— Andrew Johnson is an editorial associate at National Review Online.