State Politics

Big money, little turnover in Florida House races

Dana Young
Dana Young Dana Young

State Rep. Dana Young spent nearly $250,000 on her re-election campaign this year, including $14,067 for printing and postage, $5,450 for events and more than $75,000 for advertising.

It made no difference on Election Day. The Tampa Republican had no opponent.

Young wasn’t the only candidate to spend big on her campaign. Politicians seeking a seat in the Florida House spent a combined $23.8million on their races this year, elections records show. That doesn’t include the millions of dollars spent by political parties and outside groups.

Candidate spending, up 23 percent from 2004, did little to change the landscape. Only about 10 of the 120 House races were competitive this year. The vast majority of state representatives were re-elected to their seats.

Nationwide, Republicans on Tuesday won control over 4,100 of the nation’s 7,383 state legislative seats, the most since 1920, according to the bipartisan National Conference of State Legislatures. Republicans now control 30 legislatures, while Democrats control 11. The rest are divided.

Florida’s House is now one of 16 legislative chambers that Republicans control with a supermajority, making their power veto-proof. The Republican State Leadership Committee contributed nearly $600,000 to legislative races in Florida. The Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee gave just $9,000.

The spending was good news for political consultants, who raked in millions of dollars in Florida.

DRC Consulting took in about $1.15million in business, records show. The Miami firm’s owner David Custin said at least 85 percent of that money went directly to mail pieces, phone banking and media buys.

Another firm, Tallahassee-based Front Line Strategies, received about $1.24million from candidates for similar services.

President Brett Doster said his company’s focus was not on making big profits. “If I make a huge profit and I lose all of my races, I won’t have very many clients the next cycle,” he said.

A review of statewide campaign finance records shows expenses large ($120,000 for media placement) and small ($5.10 at Pollo Tropical).

Some purchases were unusual, like the $538.06 Scott Herman spent on a protective vest. The Fort Lauderdale Democrat said he needed it after learning a death threat from 2012 might still be a concern.

Overall, more than $2million went to advertising, records show. At least $2million was spent on mailers.

There’s a reason the candidates spent so much money, veteran lobbyist Ron Book said. Those who spend more money reach more people.

“Unfortunately, it costs money to get elected,” Book said. “Robo calls cost money. Mail pieces cost money. I don’t need to tell you how much it costs for network television.”

Campaigns in Miami and Orlando carry an additional cost: The candidates must communicate with voters in both English and Spanish.

In some cases, raising the money is more important than spending it. Candidates sometimes build their warchests to scare off opponents or to help others who are running for office. They can give their excess campaign cash to charity, cut a check to the party, or use some of the money to fund future campaigns.

“As a leader, you are expected to help your colleagues raise money, even more than you are expected to help yourself,” said Custin, the Miami political consultant.

Most of this year’s spending — about $17.3million — was done by GOP candidates.

Republican Jay Fant spent the most. His bid to win an open seat in Jacksonville cost $616,170.

Fant won the August primary by two votes, edging out Paul Renner, who raised $283,205. Fant did not return calls from the Herald/Times.

Miami-Dade’s top spenders — Republicans Erik Fresen and Daniel Diaz Leyva — were in two of the state’s most competitive races. Fresen spent $492,473 to defeat his Democratic and independent challengers. Diaz Leyva’s failed bid to unseat Democratic Rep. Jose Javier Rodriguez cost $407,611.

The top-spending Democrat was incumbent Karen Castor Dentel, of Maitland, whose race cost $393,413. Castor Dentel lost her race to Central Florida businessman Bob Cortes, who spent $178,373.

Big spending was not limited to contested seats. Incoming House Speaker Steve Crisafulli, R-Merritt Island, spent $493,234 on his blowout of little-known Democrat Joe Murray, records show.

Murray spent about $5,000, mostly on his campaign website and yard signs from www.signsonthecheap.com.

Crisafulli campaign spokesman Brian Hughes said Crisafulli’s spending “demonstrated [his] commitment to his district.”

“To ignore the district or take it for granted would be politically unwise and completely contradictory to how he feels about the people he serves,” Hughes said.

Even the incumbents who had no opposition spent a combined $3.6million, records show.

Four of them — Republicans Young, Heather Fitzenhagen, Matt Hudson and Richard Corcoran — spent more than $200,000 each on their campaigns.

Young, who was recently named House majority leader, did not return calls from the Herald/Times.

Hughes, speaking for incoming Speaker Crisafulli, said the spending by Republicans was critical this election cycle. He pointed out that Republicans ousted six Democratic incumbents in the lower chamber, giving the GOP an important advantage.

“The result is that the Florida House has a conservative supermajority and that is good for Florida’s future,” he said.

But Democratic leader Mark Pafford, of West Palm Beach, called the spending “ridiculous.” He predicted it would have a chilling effect on Florida politics.

“If you are a normal guy, it’s hard to compete unless you have the means,” said Pafford, who spent about $91,000 on his winning campaign.

Contact Kathleen McGrory at kmcgrory@MiamiHerald.com.

By the numbers: Spending on Florida House campaigns

Total spending: $23.8 million

Spending by Democratic candidates: $6.45 million

Spending by Republican candidates: $17.37 million

Spending by unopposed candidates: $3.6 million

Top five spenders:

Jay Fant, Republican candidate for House District 15: $616,170 (won)

Steve Crisafulli, Republican incumbent seeking re-election to House District 51: $493,234 (won)

Erik Fresen, Republican incumbent seeking re-election to House District 114: $492,473 (won)

Daniel Diaz Leyva, Republican candidate for House District 112: $407,611 (lost)

Karen Castor Dentel, Democratic incumbent seeking re-election to House District 30: $393,413 (lost)

Source: Florida Division of Elections

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