Outside groups fuel spending in expensive Miami congressional race

U.S. Rep. Joe Garcia, left, and challenger Carlos Curbelo, right, pictured at a debate this month.
U.S. Rep. Joe Garcia, left, and challenger Carlos Curbelo, right, pictured at a debate this month. EL NUEVO HERALD

One of the most expensive congressional contests in Florida — with a price tag of nearly $14 million as of Friday — is being waged in Miami between U.S. Rep. Joe Garcia and opponent Carlos Curbelo. But neither candidate can claim to have spent the majority of that money.

That’s because the biggest spender has been a force outside their control: third-party political groups, which have poured about $8.5 million into the campaign.

Forget all politics being local. All politics have become national.

That momentous shift can benefit challengers like Curbelo, a Republican who has raised less money on his own than Garcia, the incumbent Democrat. Outside dollars have helped Curbelo keep up — yet he says that doesn’t make him entirely comfortable.

“On balance, I think that it’s unfortunate because you don’t control the message,” he said. “While I think people running for office appreciate any support they get, there must be a better way. The candidates are — and should be — the protagonists.”

More money has been spent in the 26th congressional district race this year than in 2012 and 2010 combined. Two years ago, the campaign between Garcia and then-Rep. David Rivera cost about $2.3 million, according to the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics. Four years ago, when Republicans and Democrats battled for a rare open seat, the race cost about $5.8 million, at the time an eye-popping figure.

Taken together, those races amounted to $8.1 million total — about $6 million less than this year. And Election Day isn’t until Tuesday.

Any tally of outside spending in the race is imperfect, and likely underestimates the real total, for a variety of reasons. Some of the money, especially on the Republican side that had a contested primary, was spent before August. Not all political groups must report spending done far in advance of Election Day.

The result of the outside spending torrent, though, is clear. Campaigns adhere to national messages, whether local candidates want to or not — and most of them are negative. Garcia supporters bash Curbelo over Social Security. Curbelo backers hit Garcia over Obamacare.

“Outside expenditures allow candidates to outsource negativity, and outside spending, which is largely negative, is funded by people who don’t, largely, live in the district,” said Kathy Kiely, managing editor of the nonpartisan Sunlight Foundation, which tracks political spending. “That is going to affect the tone of the campaign. It may affect voters’ enthusiasm for getting to the polls. And both sides do it.”

Political action committees known as “super PACs” and advocacy nonprofits became bigger players after a U.S. Supreme Court ruling in the 2010 Citizens United case allowed corporations and unions to make unlimited donations to those groups. Candidates’ campaigns must still cap contributions at $2,600 per person for each election. Tax-exempt nonprofits do not have to reveal their donors; their fundraising is sometimes called “dark money.”

The courts have made it easier for deep-pocketed donors to write fatter checks, making it less important for candidates to seek out a wider pool of contributors to run, Kiely said.

“It creates sort of a false equivalence,” she said. “No longer do candidates have to have a broad financial base. They can rely on just one or two people to keep their campaigns alive, and that is not a good thing for democracy.”

Neither independent groups nor political parties are allowed to coordinate their spending with candidates’ campaigns. But voters can rarely tell the difference between a candidate ad and a group ad. That’s by design: Campaigns and parties post talking points and additional footage online, available to their allies free of charge. Making negative ads becomes easy.

Tellingly, the only mostly positive ads in which the candidates speak directly to the camera have come from Curbelo and Garcia themselves.

Garcia has easily outraised Curbelo, a Miami-Dade County school board member, and spent about twice as much. In the past that could have given Garcia an edge. But Curbelo has benefited substantially more from outside dollars.

Political parties and other groups have spent about $2.3 million opposing Curbelo and about $615,000 supporting him, for a net total of $1.7 million against, according to the Sunlight Foundation.

Garcia’s net? $5.2 million against.

“The Koch brothers are spending more money against me than I’ve been able to raise,” Garcia said last month.

It was a reference to conservative industrialist billionaires Charles and David Koch, who are frequently bashed by Democrats — though the political left has been trying to build a similar fundraising network.

In reality, no Koch affiliate on its own has surpassed Garcia’s fundraising. Put together, Koch organizations such as Americans for Prosperity (a nonprofit) and Freedom Action Partners Fund (a super PAC) have spent about $312,000 opposing Garcia, Sunlight Foundation tallies show — nowhere near the $3.5 million he’s collected on his own.

But those groups have also contributed directly to Curbelo and to national Republicans campaigning on his behalf. As a result, tracking the Kochs’ total involvement in the race becomes difficult. Another Koch-backed nonprofit, Libre Initiative, has twice run ads against Garcia, though early enough in the race that it didn’t have to report its spending.

Garcia’s campaign mentioned the Koch affiliates assisting Curbelo in a TV ad, and the congressman said that, if elected, Curbelo might be beholden to those organizations, which in many cases take more conservative positions.

“Carlos now says he wants to reform Obamacare,” Garcia said. “But the people who are paying for his campaign are against Obamacare and want to get rid of it. In the end, what is he going to do if he goes to Washington? He’s going to end up owing those people.”

Curbelo insists he won’t be.

“These groups have effectively endorsed me, but I haven’t endorsed them,” Curbelo said. “If they’re supporting me, I assume they have read all my positions and know what I stand for. I’m going to be the same person that I’ve always been.”

The single biggest group spending against Garcia is the National Republican Congressional Committee, which has spent $3.6 million in opposition to the Democrat, followed by American Action Network, a conservative nonprofit that backs Republicans who favor immigration reform. It has spent more than $1.2 million.

“We saw an opportunity to make a real impact, and we’re there to win,” AAN spokeswoman Emily Davis said in an email.

And because Republican groups are investing heavily, so are Democratic ones.

The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee has spent about $1 million against Curbelo. House Majority PAC has spent about $849,000 and lists the race among its top five nationally for the group’s TV-ad spending.

“This is certainly a competitive district where we have an incumbent that has had a lot of money spent against him, so we are doing what we can to respond to those attacks,” PAC spokesman Matt Thornton said.

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