TALLAHASSEE — A luncheon at the exclusive Governor's Club seemed like a typical fundraiser any candidate would crave in a tight race.
Lobbyists handed envelopes to nine state House campaigns, the amounts and interests behind them a mystery until campaign finance reports are filed.
Discretion is expected at these affairs, and the Sept. 18 fundraiser hosted by incoming House Speaker Will Weatherford was no different. Frank Terraferma, director of House campaigns for the Republican Party of Florida, told a Times/Herald reporter to leave because his presence was making guests "uncomfortable."
Yet most of the politicos collecting money that day hardly need it to win in November. Two face write-in candidates. Three others face token opposition from candidates who are Independents or who have no party affiliation. Just four of the Republicans listed on the invite face Democratic opponents.
In all, the nine House candidates had raised more than $1 million before the fundraiser, while their opponents in the general election have mustered a combined $33,057.
Despite that overwhelming advantage, don't expect these candidates to stop collecting money.
In Tallahassee, money equals power. So fundraising can help candidates win and prove to party leaders that they are capable of raising big bucks. This helps them score key committee assignments and puts them on the fast track for leadership roles like House speaker.
"It's always good to show you're a candidate who can stand on his own," said Manny Diaz, assistant principal at Redland Middle School in Miami-Dade County who is running for House District 103. "I don't want to be a candidate who needs to rely on the party."
Also, Florida law allows winning or unopposed candidates to contribute up to $20,000 to someone running for statewide office, or $10,000 to a state House or Senate campaign.
But the same law requires candidates to stop raising money once they face no opposition.
Diaz falls into a state loophole.
He defeated two other Republicans in the August primary for a Hialeah-area district where 35 percent of the voters are Republican. With only Republicans in the race, the district's Democratic and Independent voters should have been able to vote in the primary, thanks to a 1998 amendment to the state Constitution letting everyone vote in a primary contest if it decides the winner before the general election. But in 2000, then-Secretary of State Katherine Harris allowed a very large exception to the universal primary, writing a rule that deemed write-in candidates as viable general election opponents, even though their names do not appear on the ballot.
That means that if someone files as a write-in candidate, the primary is restricted to the party registration of the candidates.
That's what happened when Josue Vazquez filed to oppose Diaz as a write-in candidate.
Diaz said he only knows Vazquez in passing, that he has no affiliation with him or knowledge of why he ran.
When a reporter called to talk to him, Vazquez hung up. He didn't return repeated calls.
But 2010 campaign finance reports show that when Diaz ran unsuccessfully for school board, he paid Vazquez $600 for "field work" and "campaign work."
How serious a candidate is Vazquez? He has raised zero dollars through mid September. By comparison, Diaz spent $120,000 through Sept. 14, campaign records show. Even though he has $4,000 left, Diaz said he wants to raise another $25,000 to finance a direct mail campaign. He said it will get his name out in a positive way that voters might remember in two years, when he runs for re-election.
More than a third of the 120 state House races have already been decided because there's no opposition.
With token opponents, however, candidates like Diaz continue to raise money.
In the state House, 12 Republicans and three Democrats face write-in candidates, none of whom have raised even a nickel.
"That's very troubling," said Deirdre Macnab, president of the League of Women Voters of Florida. "It's quite a stunning coincidence that none of them raised money. This is completely opposite the intent of the law."
Closing the loophole, however, would be problematic, said Terraferma, the state GOP director of House campaigns. While he couldn't think of one case where a write-in candidate won in Florida, he said write-in candidates have won in other states.
The Sept. 18 Governor's Club fundraiser was necessary for these candidates, he said, because the state Republican Party won't spend money on the races because they are lopsided.
"It's incumbent upon them to raise money themselves to communicate to the registered voters of their districts," Terraferma said Monday. "It's a way for them to get known by the voters."
Times/Herald staff writer Steve Bousquet contributed to this report. Michael Van Sickler can be reached at [email protected]