State Politics

Campaign for Florida governor barely starts but candidates’ spending is in full swing

Philip Levine, a former mayor of Miami Beach now running for governor, greets voters in Orlando during a campaign stop in January.
Philip Levine, a former mayor of Miami Beach now running for governor, greets voters in Orlando during a campaign stop in January. dsmiley@miamiherald.com

Florida House Speaker Richard Corcoran is weeks away from officially launching his bid for governor, but already he is burning through campaign money faster than most of the candidates who have actively campaigned for months.

The Pasco County Republican has spent $3.8 million over 10 months, or 58 percent of the money he has raised to date. That is a greater spending rate than all but one of the major candidates for governor.

Much of it went to TV ads that did little or nothing to improve Corcoran’s bleak poll numbers of around 3 percent. But he also paid his pollster over $280,000 — more than all the other candidates combined spent on polling.

The only candidate to spend more liberally than Corcoran is Democratic multimillionaire businessman Philip Levine, who has raised $10.1 million, including nearly $4.6 million from his own pockets.

The former mayor of Miami Beach is worth more than $100 million from work mostly in the cruise ship industry, and so far appears able and willing to spend many millions on his campaign. That may help explain his spending $49,000 for a graffiti artist to paint murals inside the campaign office he owns in Miami Beach (featuring the likes of JFK, Cesar Chavez and Harriet Tubman) and paying for TV ads to air in Washington, D.C., during the recent march for gun control.

Florida is a vast and diverse state with 21 million people and 10 TV markets, so running a successful statewide campaign takes multiple millions of dollars, and this year’s gubernatorial contest features wide-open primaries for the Democratic and Republican nominations.

Successful campaigns invariably require not only an ability to raise millions of dollars, but also discipline and an effective game plan for how and when to spend the money raised.

A rule of thumb among campaign professionals is that roughly 75 percent of a campaign’s expense should be spent on direct voter contact, be it TV ads, direct mail, online ads or organizers on the ground.

But at least two candidates, Corcoran and Levine, have tossed conventional wisdom aside by launching TV ad campaigns early in the election cycle when few voters are paying attention.

The Tampa Bay Times examined the spending by all the major candidates for governor, most of whom have conventional campaign committees that can accept donations up to $3,000, and separate political action committees that have no limit on donations.

Among the findings:

▪  U.S. Rep. Ron DeSantis, R-Palm Coast, has spent far less than anyone else — $180,000, or just 3 percent of $5.5 million raised so far. That’s largely because DeSantis only announced for governor in January and because his primary campaign activity seems to be appearing constantly on Fox News. That free air time would otherwise cost millions of dollars.

But DeSantis also spent money raising his profile that doesn’t appear on his campaign accounts. He used his congressional campaign account in the six months before he announced his candidacy to pay $30,000 to former Fox News producer Alex Finland to help him book appearances on TV.

▪  Democratic Tallahassee Mayor Andrew Gillum has raised less than any other candidate, $2.7 million, and has spent 53 percent without running a single TV ad. Nearly $230,000 went to assorted campaign consultants.

Among Gillum’s expenses? More than $25,000 in rent payments to a little-known public relations company, P&P Communications, that employs Gillum. A spokesman said Gillum does “leadership consulting” as a P&P vice president but declined to name any clients.

▪  Gillum is not alone in paying rent to his own business. Levine’s campaign pays $4,000 a month to a Levine-controlled company to house his campaign headquarters in one of his properties. The campaign said he would prefer to simply donate that office space to the campaign, but a lawyer said the campaign should pay fair market rent.

▪  Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam’s campaign has raised so much money — $18 million from interests such as utility and agriculture companies — that his heavy spending on campaign consultants has barely dented his accounts.

Without airing any TV ads, Putnam has spent more than $4.6 million, including $580,000 to Texas-based Harris Media for digital advertising and consulting and more than $1 million to the consulting firm of longtime political aide Justin Hollis.

The Democratic Governors Association has a pending complaint with the Florida Elections Commission alleging that Putnam’s committee is improperly avoiding disclosure of its campaign spending by making payments to Hollis, who then diverts money elsewhere.

▪  Democratic businessman Chris King of Winter Park barely registers in public polls, but he has spent nearly $725,000 on campaign consultants. Almost two-thirds of that went to 270 Strategies, a firm dominated by Barack Obama campaign alums. He has spent more than 40 percent of the $4 million raised to date. A campaign spokesman said the $479,000 paid to 270 Strategies includes the cost of digital ads.

▪  Democratic former U.S. Rep. Gwen Graham of Tallahassee has spent 31 percent of $6.8 million raised to date. About $674,000 went to consultants helping the campaign.

Money does not necessarily win campaigns, but in a state as big as Florida it matters enormously. Mail-ballot voting for the Aug. 28 primary starts in 3  1/2 months, and how the campaigns raise, spend and save their resources will be critical to who winds up with the nominations.

The early spending by Corcoran and Levine is virtually unprecedented in modern Florida politics, leaving rivals pondering key questions:

▪  Is Levine prepared to spend the kind of personal money Rick Scott did on his 2010 gubernatorial campaign, about $75 million, to win the governor’s mansion? Public polls show Levine effectively tied for first place with Graham for the Democratic nomination, with nearly half of Democrats undecided.

▪  Now that the legislative session is over and Corcoran no longer holds such influence on bills affecting deep-pocketed business interests, can he raise enough money to compete credibly against the top Republicans? Public polls show him lagging well behind Putnam and DeSantis.

“Corcoran’s political and legislative accomplishments have always defied conventional wisdom,” said spokesman Taylor Budowich. “Anyone who tries to judge him in terms of what’s conventional is making a mistake. There’s a lot of time between now and November, and anyone who has been paying attention knows that elections aren’t decided in March.”

▪  Can Graham improve her campaign finances and performance on the campaign trail sufficiently to compete with Levine’s lavish spending?

▪  Will constant free publicity from Fox News be enough to deliver the GOP nomination to DeSantis?

Contact Adam C. Smith at asmith@tampabay.com. Follow @adamsmithtimes.

Related stories from Miami Herald

  Comments