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From the staff of the Tampa Bay Times

Let's play the fundraising expectations game

Dollar-sign We've seen the grim unemployment and foreclosure numbers for Florida. Now we're about to see another telling gauge about the state of Florida's economy: campaign fundraising reports. Regrettable as it may be, money matters profoundly in statewide Florida campaigns. The greatest message ever is meaningless if a candidate lacks the money to spread it across this vast state.

So while most voters blissfully ignore the quiet campaign dramas playing out more than a year before election day, initial fundraising totals are widely watched  by the political intelligensia as a key indicator of a candidate's strength and viability.The three-month fundraising period that ended June 30 (reports are due July 10 for state candidates and July 15 for federal candidates), is especially unpredictable this year. With most every statewide office open in 2010, a slew of candidates is trying to make a big splash in the fundraising quarter to show their strength and scare off more rivals.

They're all courting a finite pool of donors in a terrible economy that has clobbered one of the biggest donor sectors - development and real estate. And they're doing it at the same time Florida's big kahuna of money-raising - Charlie Crist - is working overtime to drain the money swamp for himself.
 We're hearing lots of spin from all sides aiming to raise expectations for their opponents and lower them for their own candidate. Let's wade into the expectations game, and summarize the conventional wisdom among the political professionals in and outside the campaigns.

U.S. SENATE
Charlie Crist: The Republican governor and U.S. Senate frontrunner is to raising campaign money what Michael Jordan was to basketball. And Crist likes to break records. The last U.S. Senate fundraising record was set by Mel Martinez, who raised $1.7-million in his first quarter as a Senate candidate in 2006. Crist allies are throwing around numbers like $2.5-million, while rival Marco Rubio is suggesting at $7-million or more for Crist. But the governor's been on a money-raising marathon lately, and is asking people to give the maximum $2,400 allowed for his primary election, and another $2,400 for the general election at the same time. Considering that Democrat Kendrick Meek raised nearly $1.5-million  in the first quarter of his U.S. Senate primary, Crist as a sitting governor should trounce that. Our guesstimate for Crist? North of $4-million.
Marco Rubio: The former Republican state House Speaker from Miami is a big longshot that can't be placed in the same fundraising universe as Crist . But Rubio has done a masterful job casting himself as a great hope for ardent conservatives across the country and reports raising about $150,000 in online donations alone. We'll be watching for how many small donors he attracts nationally - people who can step up again if the campaign gains momentum. The Rubio metric? If he reports $250,000, political elites start writing him off. If he raises $1-million Rubio looks like a potentially serious force against Crist. In between, optimistic conservatives continue humoring him awhile.

GOVERNOR
In the first quarter of the 2006 governor's race, Republicans Charlie Crist raised $3.8-million, and Tom Gallagher $3.1-million. Forget it this year. Those are numbers from a bygone economy. Republican Bill McCollum only had about six weeks to raise money, but he is a dogged money-raiser, has a legion of top GOP fundraisers helping him, and the debut fundraising quarter tends to be among the easiest for a candidate. Democrat Alex Sink already had raised more than $1-million for her "re-election" as chief financial officer, most of which will be rolled into her gubernatorial campaign. It's a brutal economy and Republicans outraise Democrats in Florida, but Sink also is cast as the Democrats best hope for capturing the governor's mansion in more than a decade.
 The benchmark? At least $1-million for both in the quarter.
 DOWNBALLOT RACES
 Lower tier statewide races like chief financial officer, attorney general, and, agriculture commissioner are especially reliant on fundraising. Except for U.S. Rep. Adam Putnam, R-Bartow, who  says he added another $250,000 to the $500,000 he already had raised for his agriculture commissioner campaign, don't look for giant numbers. In the competitive Democratic primary for attorney general between south Florida state Sens. Dave Aronberg and Dan Gelber, approaching $100,000 will be a sign of viability and both should top that (Aronberg should be expected to raise more, as Gelber suspended his senate campaign). For CFO favorite Jeff Atwater, as Republican Florida Senate president, $400,000 to $500,000 is probably a solid sign of strength, though one top GOP fundraiser suggested anything less than $700,000 for Atwater would be a sign of Florida's dire economy.

Thoughts? Comment or e-mail me directly as asmith@sptimes.com

[Last modified: Thursday, September 9, 2010 4:50pm]

    

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