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Money equals power in local political races

Money. It has the power to make or break a political candidate's election chances.

Raise enough funds and people learn your name. Fall behind and the voters may forget you.

When it comes to local races, campaign donations appear to play an ever-increasing role in determining outcomes.

In a Tampa Bay Times review of the 2008, 2010 and 2012 elections, more than 90 percent of local and state partisan races involving Hillsborough County were won by the candidate who raised the most money.

"Money is huge, especially in races down ballot," said Seth McKee, an associate professor of political science at the University of South Florida St. Petersburg.

More money equals more television commercials, mailers, yard signs and billboards. It gives candidates the ability to plaster themselves across a district.

"Just a name alone being recognized is a net positive for a candidate," McKee said. "Money gives you that."

• • •

Last week's primary election offers several examples.

Former Florida Senate President Tom Lee raised more than twice the amount of his opponent, state Rep. Rachel Burgin, in the state Senate District 24. He won the race with almost 60 percent of the vote.

"Usually people who raise the most money are thought to be the most viable," McKee said. "People don't like to give to losers; that's why you see such a strong correlation between winning and money raised."

But can it really affect the results of a race?

"In general, that's true, but there are always going to be exceptions," said April Schiff, a local political consultant. "To some extent, elections are unpredictable. You don't know what voters are going to do."

Especially when controversy is involved.

Consider the case of Kevin White.

In 2010, White ran for reelection to the Hillsborough County Commission against Les Miller and Valerie Goddard.

Fresh from a federal civil case in which a jury found him guilty of sexually discriminating against a former aide by firing her for refusing his repeated advances, White still managed to out raise both of his opponents by almost $25,000.

Yet, it wasn't enough to make voters forget. Miller went on to win the race.

"If there is such a negative association with a person, money can't really change an image," McKee said. "Money may make a candidate more viable but it can't really change who a candidate is."

• • •

Z.J. Hafeez learned the hard way that having the most money doesn't always carry the day.

Hafeez, a 28-year-old Tampa private attorney, ran for state House District 63 in last week's Democratic primary.

Up against another virtually unknown candidate with no political experience, Hafeez thought he had a chance at winning.

His opponent, Mark Danish, is a 58-year-old veteran teacher. Hafeez graduated from Georgetown University's law school and started his career at the World Trade Organization before becoming a consultant for Tampa-based Quality Health Plans.

Hafeez felt he had done his part: He went door-to-door, sent out thousands of mailers, planted yard signs and made endless phone calls.

Through that effort, he raised more than $50,000, almost 10 times as much as his opponent. Yet, he only received 38 percent of the vote.

To him, it boils down to one reason.

"At the end of the day, the only thing we don't have is the name," Hafeez said.

Hafeez is a Muslim of Pakistani descent. He thinks that, combined with having a last name that may seem unfamiliar or scary to some, hurt him in the election.

"One thing we are not sure of is whether Florida is ready, at this point, to have people from our community running for office," he said. "Honestly, it's the only reason we can think of for the loss."

Danish agrees that Hafeez's background may have played a role, but said he doesn't think that was the only thing swaying voters his way.

He cited his grass roots campaign, strong union backing and living in the district for more than 35 years as the reasons behind his success.

Yet, he concedes, he still has a way to go in fundraising ahead of the November election, when he'll go up against Republican state Rep. Shawn Harrison.

"I think money will have an effect on the race, but I think the same thing will happen," he said. "It's my ground game and working with people that I believe will override the money."

• • •

Though money doesn't guarantee a win, it takes more dollars than ever to have an upper hand in today's races.

And to make ends meet when local money doesn't flow in, some politicians are turning to party leaders in the state capital and special interest groups.

"This past election cycle there were a lot of candidates that if they didn't have a pipeline to political givers, they had difficulty making money, particularly in state races," Schiff said.

Part of that can be blamed on the economy, she said.

"Friends and such are not able to give what they would have in the past. Plus everything costs more, from yard signs to the wire used to stake them in the ground."

Despite rising costs, local fundraising methods haven't changed much over the years.

Mitch Kates, a political consultant with years of experience, can vouch for that.

"For the most part, fundraising is done the same way it always has been," Kates wrote in an email. "It involves face-to-face communication and the 'ask' or a lot of time on the phone 'dialing for dollars.' "

Schiff said she tells her candidates to spend at least half of their time on the phone until they meet the dollar amount needed.

She's not a fundraiser, but without the money, her job as a consultant wouldn't make much sense, she said.

"No matter how good the message is, no matter how great the candidate you are, there is only one way to get to voters," Schiff said, "that's to pay."

Times researcher John Martin contributed to this report. Shelley Rossetter can be reached at srossetter@tampabay.com or (813) 661-2442.

Money equals power in local political races 08/23/12 [Last modified: Thursday, August 23, 2012 5:30am]

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