State Politics

Stream of checks from big donors breaks records in Florida

Supporters for both Gov. Rick Scott and candidate Charlie Crist hold up signs as a bus carrying former Gov. Crist passes by on Monday, Nov. 3, 2014 in Miami.
Supporters for both Gov. Rick Scott and candidate Charlie Crist hold up signs as a bus carrying former Gov. Crist passes by on Monday, Nov. 3, 2014 in Miami. Getty Images

It’s now official: This year’s state elections are the costliest in Florida history, and the nation’s most expensive.

Republican and Democratic candidates for statewide and legislative offices and their political parties in the 2014 election cycle raised a staggering $345 million, according to a preliminary analysis by the Herald/Times and the Washington-based Center for Responsive Politics.

Campaign finance reports filed with the Florida Division of Elections by Friday’s deadline show that huge contributions from out-of-state mega donors helped to make 2014 the most expensive Florida governor’s race on record. The Center For Responsive Politics has concluded that, as a result, Florida has the most expensive mid-term election in the nation.

“Money always speaks,” said Susan MacManus, political science professor at the University of South Florida who runs the Sunshine State Survey of voters opinions.

As voters head to the polls Tuesday, the infusion of big checks from deep pockets increases voter disenchantment, she said. “The average person says: ‘When this money is gushing in to the political system why should I get involved?’ They see the message is all about tearing down, not building up, and they tune it out.”

The flood of cash helped to fuel unprecedented spending on a barrage of mostly-negative television ads. Records show that Republican Gov. Rick Scott and Democrat Charlie Crist have spent at least $104 million on television alone, saturating the airwaves at an unprecedented rate.

The largest single out-of-state contributor was Sheldon Adelson, the Las Vegas casino magnate and owner of the Las Vegas Sands, who has been on a four-year mission to bring resort casinos to Florida.

His total: $7.5 million, including $5 million to oppose Amendment 2 on medical marijuana. The citizen’s initiative is vigorously opposed by Adelson as well as the governor and Republican-controlled Legislature — who also control the fate of Adelson’s casino initiative. Adelson also gave $1.5 million to the Republican Party of Florida. Supporting the amendment is Orlando Attorney John Morgan, who has spent $6.5 million to get the measure passed by voters.

The massive checks are sprinkled into the campaign accounts of the parties like seedlings. George Soros, the wealthy left-leaning investor, gave the Florida Democratic Party $1 million in the final days of the election. Many of the largest Democratic Party checks come from smaller dollar contributions from union members across the country. More than $3 million came from the state and federal unions — nearly all of it steered to the party and Democratic candidate for governor, Charlie Crist.

The for-profit school industry and school choice advocates also spent heavily, almost entirely on Republicans. Charter schools raised $272,000 for Republicans and the Washington-based school-choice advocacy group, the American Federation for Children Action fund, gave the GOP and its candidates $596,000.

Florida, however, has no shortage of home-grown corporate and special interests who wrote six and seven-figure campaign checks this cycle, according the disclosure reports. Florida legislators two years ago rewrote the state’s campaign finance laws and, while they increased the number of disclosure reports, they also made it easier for large donors to make unlimited contributions.

The hundreds of millions of dollars flowing into Florida has been driven by loose campaign laws that allow for unlimited donations to state political parties following a controversial 2010 Supreme Court ruling that found First Amendment rights were being violated by limits on campaign contributions.

For many companies, the big contributions are a down payment — no matter which governor is in office — to influence the future of hot button issues such as gambling, energy, school testing, land development, and regulations.

Republicans, including candidates and the state party, raised about $209.5 million and directed at least half of it to re-electing Scott. Early reports show that the governor raised $62.7 million through his political committee and his individual campaign, and augmented it with money raised through the party.

Political parties are not required to report how much of their fundraising was intended for the governor, but records show that the Scott campaign was helped by $18.5 million from the Republican Governors Association.

The Washington-based RGA receives donations from across the country but IRS records show it also received large checks from some of Florida’s biggest corporate interests — Duke Energy ($750,000), WellCare in Tampa ($260,000), Heritage Insurance ($225,000) and the Florida Chamber of Commerce ($250,000).

Democrats raised about $136.8 million this cycle, steering most of it into the election of Crist, the former GOP governor and now Democrat who is attempting to reclaim his old job.

Crist raised $30 million from his political committee and $14.7 million from his political campaign. He also benefited from an injection of $6 million from the Democratic Governors Association and $19.9 million from NextGen Climate, the super PAC run by environmental activist and former hedge fund executive Thomas Steyer who ran an aggressive anti-Scott campaign. He’s spending millions more in a nationwide fight against Republicans who deny the existence of man-made climate change.

NextGen Climate is among a growing band of super PACs and “dark money” political committees that are sweeping the country this election cycle, leaving their mark on state elections. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the Koch family-funded Americans For Prosperity are others whose contributions come from difficult to track sources.

In Florida, some of the big donors responsible for the record-shattering amounts of cash are a Who’s Who of players that have worked for years to control the legislative debate in Tallahassee. Among the big donors to state campaigns in the 2012-14 election cycle:

▪ Casino giants Genting ($2.5 million) and Adelson, along with the Seminole Tribe of Florida ($2.3 million), who are all facing off against each other and Disney ($4 million) over the fate of gambling expansion in Florida.

▪ Doctors ($643,000), hospitals ($764,000) and health insurers ($453,000) are also working to persuade the next governor and legislature find a way to expand Medicaid.

▪ Utility giants Duke Energy ($1.3 million) and Florida Power & Light ($7.4 million) are warring with solar and alternative energy advocates who want them to diversify their power supply, conserve more energy, and reduce reliance on nuclear power.

▪ And agricultural giant U.S. Sugar ($3 million) is positioning itself to convert 67 square miles of farmland to development in Hendry County. It needs the cooperation of the legislature and the governor to move forward with its plans.

The avalanche of cash has also come in a year when there are fewer competitive legislative races to drain resources than there were in 2012 and 2010, an advantage for the incumbent governor as his race overshadowed everything.

After Scott spent $75 million of his own money on his campaign four years ago, he vowed he would raise the money needed to be competitive this time. Last month, he wrote his campaign four checks totaling $12.8 million — making Scott and his wife, Ann, the largest single donors in Florida.

“The bar was set pretty high four years ago and we weren’t going to go back,” said Ron Book, a lobbyist whose clients are among the largest donors this cycle. This year, however, the 2016 presidential race is helping to drive the election, Book said, because the governor is expected to play a pivotal role in shaping which direction Florida will go.

Dan Krassner, president of Integrity Florida, a Tallahassee-based public interest watchdog group, said that the growing presence of mega donors into Florida’s politics is “having a corrupting effect on Tallahassee.”

“Big donors and their lobbyists are heard and the public is not part of the conversation,’’ he said. He believes Congress and state legislators should “to redefine the current system of money and politics as corruption...and restore the connection between voters and their representatives.”

Mary Ellen Klas can be reached at meklas@MiamiHerald.com and @MaryEllenKlas

BIG CHECKS, FEWER DONORS

In the era of mega donors, Republicans dominate. They raised more money in the 2014 election cycle, while the Democratic Party raised less cash but from more individual donors.

Republican Party of Florida

Amount raised: $68.7M

Number of checks: 91,220

Florida Democratic Party

Amount raised: $27.8M

Number of checks: 128,573

Rick Scott’s political committee

Amount raised: $45.8M

Amount raised by his campaign: $16.7M

Number of checks: 12,888

Charlie Crist’s political committee

Amount raised: $30M

Amount raised by his campaign: $14.7M

Number of checks: 90,939

Source: Florida Division of Elections, Herald/Times research

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