State Politics

Gov. Rick Scott, Charlie Crist make final push as Florida governor’s race nears end

Gov. Rick Scott, left, and Charlie Crist, right, campaign Saturday, Nov. 1, 2014.
Gov. Rick Scott, left, and Charlie Crist, right, campaign Saturday, Nov. 1, 2014.

With TV ad spending topping $104 million in Florida’s record-shattering, nail-biter of a governor’s race — including the late addition of nearly $13 million directly from Gov. Rick Scott — the candidates spread out across Florida on Saturday trying to push every last supporter to the polls.

Charlie Crist mingled with students in Tallahassee, while his campaign aides fretted about the impact of an unprecedented number of ads launched by Scott and his allies. Republicans are spending more than $13 million on TV ads over the final eight days, twice what Democrats are spending and equivalent to about $1,200 every minute of every day for TV commercials.

“Just turn on the TV and watch,” said a smiling Melissa Sellers, Scott’s campaign manager, when asked about the spending while Scott was in Sun City Center south of Tampa with U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio.

Scott also looked upbeat as he kicked off Saturday’s “Let’s Keep Working” bus tour for a drive down I-75 where he later met up with New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie in Naples.

“Have you heard about the Republican, the Democrat, and the independent that walked into the bar?” he asked about 100 supporters. “He walks in, and everybody says, ‘Hi Charlie!’ ”

Reports filed late Friday show Scott and his wife, Ann, tapped their personal wealth to help finance his campaign by writing a series of checks for $12.8 million in the last month, including checks from the governor’s “blind trust,” whose contents are shielded from him to avoid conflicts of interest.

Scott, who made most of his fortune running the Columbia/HCA hospital chain and spent more than $75 million of his own money to win in 2010, had said a year ago he would not fund his campaign this time around.

The governor’s contributions came in two spurts: checks of $5 million each from Richard L. Scott’s “qualified blind trust” and Frances A. Scott, his wife, on Oct. 6, and two more checks of $1.4 million each, from the same sources.

A spokesman for the governor, Greg Blair, said Scott did not instruct trustees which investments to liquidate, which would be improper under a blind trust. But “that doesn’t mean the money doesn’t belong to you and you can’t withdraw from that account,” Blair added.

Crist, the former Republican governor who ran for U.S. Senate unsuccessfully as an independent and now is the Democratic nominee for governor, spent Saturday in Tallahassee, where thousands of FAMU alumni gathered for the homecoming game against Norfolk State.

His campaign is counting on strong African-American support, and attending the FAMU game enabled him to schmooze with black voters and leaders from every corner of Florida. Black voters made up about 11 percent of the electorate in 2010, and the Crist campaign says nearly twice as many black voters have cast ballots this year compared to four years ago.

“We cover the whole state by being here,” Crist said as he worked the crowd at Bragg Memorial Stadium. “Rick Scott thinks he can buy this race. But he can’t buy (votes) and he can’t buy the governor’s race.”

Scott on Saturday noted that California billionaire, investor and environmental activist Tom Steyer has spent about $15 million to help defeat him, including a series of ads in the Tampa Bay area highlighting Scott’s support for and from Duke Energy.

“We had to offset this left-wing billionaire,” Scott said of Steyer before hopping on his bus and heading to Venice. “We put our money in, but it’s nothing close to $15 million.”

Since March, Scott and his allies have spent about $68 million on TV ads and Crist and his allies, including Steyer’s NextGen Climate, have spent about $36 million since their TV campaign began in July. Most of the ads from both campaigns have been negative, and for the final two weeks, Scott is on pace to air as much as $19.5 million in ads to Crist’s $7.8 million.

“Rick Scott is spending his ill-gotten campaign cash so fast, every 40 minutes he spends what a middle-class Florida family makes in a year,” said Florida Democratic Party executive director Scott Arceneaux, referring to Medicare fraud that occurred at Columbia/HCA when Scott led the company.

Polls consistently show the race tied or virtually tied, which means it will likely be won by whichever side does a better job turning out voters. Gauging who has the stronger get-out-the-vote effort is complicated by the way early voting is redefining campaigns in Florida. More than 2.8 million Floridians already have voted by mail or at early voting locations, more than half the number of people who cast ballots in the last race for governor.

About 134,000 more Republicans than Democrats had cast votes by Saturday morning, an advantage of about 4.8 percentage points, which sounds like great news for Scott. But in 2010, About 271,000 more Republicans than Democrats had voted before Election Day, an advantage of nearly 12 percentage points. That was a Republican wave election and Scott wound up beating Democrat Alex Sink by 61,000 votes, just over 1 percentage point.

The political landscape is so uncertain neither side can feel comfortable as the hours tick down to Election Day.

How big an impact will unprecedented TV spending in the final days have on the race?

How many people who voted early were certain to vote anyway?

Will independents break toward Crist as polls suggest?

Both sides are bringing in big names for the final push. Vice President Joe Biden will campaign for Crist in Miami and Fort Lauderdale on Sunday, and Bill Clinton will campaign for him in Orlando on Monday.

Jeb Bush will be on the trail with Scott in Hialeah on Sunday. On Election Day in west Tampa, Texas Gov. Rick Perry will campaign with Scott at the Arco Iris restaurant at 11:45 a.m. On Saturday, Rubio campaigned with Scott in Sun City Center, Venice and Fort Myers, while Christie joined him in Naples.

Rubio served as Florida House speaker for half of Crist’s term as a Republican governor, and said Crist did little to entice or help grow businesses because he never showed leadership.

“He wasn’t engaged, and quite frankly he wasn’t capable of doing it. Beyond that, his policies scared people away. If you think Republican Charlie Crist was bad, imagine Democrat Charlie Crist,” Rubio said.

“In Rick Scott, you have a real governor, someone who is managing the state on a day-to-day basis. He wakes up in the morning and the first thing he thinks about is, ‘How can I make Florida the best place, not only in the country, but in the world for people to invest?’ ...When Charlie Crist was governor he woke up in the morning and said ‘What can I do to become vice president? What other office can I run for?’ ”

In Tallahassee on Saturday, Crist donned an orange-and-green windbreaker to meet with FAMU fans who were tailgating before the game. His wife, Carole, wore a FAMU sweatshirt and an orange-and-green ski cap with a pom-pom on top for the occasion. The two shook hands with voters from Jacksonville, Miami and Tampa. Crist urged each to vote on Tuesday.

Dwayne Pressley, an entrepreneur from Tallahassee, spotted Crist in the parking lot and rushed over for a photograph.

“I voted early for you,” Pressley said.

“That’s great,” Crist replied. “Go and get five more.”

In South Florida, a steady stream of early voters — with no long waits — were casting ballots at dozens of locations.

In Broward County, Jonathan Shuster and his wife turned voting into a family outing Saturday morning, bringing their two daughters, ages 3 and 7, with them to the Davie/Cooper City Branch Library.

Shuster, 43, said he voted for Crist. He said that as an independent voter (NPA), Crist switching parties didn’t bother him.

“I think he did a decent job as governor,” said Shuster, who said he also wants to vote Scott out of office, and would have voted for former state Sen. Nan Rich had she beat Crist in the primary.

In Miami-Dade County, Roberto Alonso, 34, arrived at the Miami LakesCommunity Center with his two sons and wife, who went to vote. Alonso, a Republican, said he’d already voted for Rick Scott.

“He has the same values I have. He’s a conservative. He’s done great for the state. I’ve seen what he’s done with the budget. It’s really impressive. I want to keep on that way,” said Alonso. “Charlie Crist, we all know his track record and all the issues he’s had. We don’t need the same issues coming back to the state.”

According to reports filed Friday with the Florida Division of Elections, the Republican Party of Florida raised a whopping $65.8 million in the last quarter while the Florida Democratic Party raised $31 million.

The largest contributor to Scott’s campaign has been the Republican Governors Association, whose contributors include many of the corporate and millionaire donors who also have written lucrative checks to Scott’s political committee or the Republican Party. The organization sent Scott $18.5 million in contributions.

Among the largest contributors to the Republicans between Aug. 23 and Oct. 30 was Sheldon Adelson ($1.5 million), a Las Vegas casino operator who also has financed much of the opposition to the Amendment 2 medical marijuana efforts.

The biggest checks to the Democrats came from millionaire investor George Soros ($1 million), the Mostyn law firm ($1.1 million) and AFSCME ($1.3 million). Some special interests hedged their investments in the Republicans by also contributing — albeit in smaller amounts — to the Democrats.

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

Miami Herald staff writers Kathleen McGrory, David Smiley and Melhor Leonor contributed to this story.

Voices of South Florida’s Early Voters

Davie/Cooper City

Jonathan Shuster and his wife turned voting into a family outing Saturday morning, bringing their two daughters, ages 3 and 7, with them to the Davie/Cooper City Branch Library at 4600 SW 82nd Ave.

Shuster, 43, said he voted for Crist. He said that as an independent voter (NPA), Crist switching parties didn’t bother him.

“It didn’t bother me that Charlie Crist changed political parties. I think he did a decent job as governor,” he said.

Shuster said he also wants to vote Scott out of office, and would have voted for Nan Rich had she beat Crist in the primary.

“I don’t want Rick Scott to be able to do everything he’s done over the past two years and just get voted back into office. There has to be some accountability there,” said Shuster, a group account director for an interactive marketing agency. “He’s trying to make up ground now that it’s election seasion basically taking credit for the economic recovery, which is happening organically nationwide anyway. He’s saying I created all these jobs, and now say let me start funding education again. And he was also pretty awful in the debates. I don’t think he presented well.”

Miami Lakes

At the Miami Lakes Community Center, Eladio Jose Armesto, 54, a Democrat, also voted for Crist. But he did it with far less enthusiasm than Shuster.

“I voted for Charlie holding my nose. In the Cuban community we say Charlie changes parties as many times as he changes underwear,” said Armesto. “But I think Scott needs to be replaced.”

Roberto Alonso, 34, arrived at the same polling location with his two sons and wife, who went to vote. Alonso, a Republican, said he’d already voted for Rick Scott.

“He has the same values I have. He’s a conservative. He’s done great for the state. I’ve seen what he’s done with the budget. It’s really impressive. I want to keep on that way,” said Alonso. “Charlie Crist, we all know his track record and all the issues he’s had. We don’t need the same issues coming back to the state.”

Alonso said the improving economy helped him and his wife open an adult daycare center called Always at Your Side Adult Day Care in Miami Lakes recently. He said rising real estate values allowed them to take out a loan for the small business, using the equity in their home as collateral.

“I know it’s a whole nationwide issue and not just run by the governor,” he said. “But of course the state is doing a lot better, in my opinion.”

West Miami-Dade

Carmen Molina, 50, is an educator and voted for Charlie Crist because she said Scott hasn’t backed teachers.

“Our current governor has done nothing for teachers,” she said. “Just had us contribute more to our pension plans.”

Melly Orellana, 60, voted for Crist because of Scott’s opposition to the Affordable Care Act.

“Rick Scott did not want to support Obamacare and Medicaid [expansion], and poor people need these programs,” she said.

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