TALLAHASSEE — When Democrat Alex Sink sought re-election as Florida's chief financial officer, she was such a safe bet to win a second term that a number of Republicans raced to her campaign with $500 checks.
But the stakes became much higher when Sink switched races last month to run for governor in 2010, going up against longtime Republican and party favorite Bill McCollum. Now by law she must contact all contributors and offer them their money back — minus some that has already been spent.
In a May 28 letter to hundreds of contributors, Sink included a form for contributors to request refunds. Her letter underlined the key sentence: "If you would like to support my campaign for governor, you do not have to do anything."
Some Republicans want their money back, while others say Sink can keep it.
"We were willing to support her at that time. That decision's been made and it's over," said Republican Chris Kise, a lawyer who served under Charlie Crist as governor and, earlier, as attorney general. Kise and his wife, Amy, each gave Sink $500. He said it was "bad form" to seek refunds.
Brian Ballard, one of Tallahassee's most prominent lobbyists, gave Sink a $500 check through his law firm, as did his wife, Kathryn. But Ballard is a member of the statewide finance committee for Sink's Republican opponent, Attorney General McCollum. He wants a refund.
"Those were contributions to her race for CFO," Ballard said. "A commitment to a race for governor is a meaningful statement. With all due respect to Chris Kise, it is bad form to contribute to a candidate you don't support."
Sink raised $1.1 million in the first three months of this year. She continued to raise money as a CFO candidate literally up until the day she announced for governor, May 13.
Former Republican House Speaker John Thrasher, who has ended a lucrative lobbying career to run for the state Senate next year, gave Sink $500 in February for her CFO re-election. He wants his money back.
Thrasher said his donation was specifically for Sink's CFO race. Once his "close personal friend" McCollum entered the race, the stakes changed, Thrasher said. His own ambitions for a Jacksonville-area Senate seat played a role, too.
"I was a lobbyist then, obviously, and I hadn't decided to run for the Florida Senate, and she hadn't decided to run for governor," Thrasher said. "I think the world of Alex, but I intend on supporting Bill McCollum for governor. It's not a strike at Alex so much as Bill's my guy."
Thrasher's former lobbying partner, David Rancourt, who helped found the Southern Strategy Group, gave Sink $500 the same day as Thrasher. He doesn't want his money back.
"I told the CFO I would consider it bad form to withdraw my support after giving her a check," Rancourt said. "To me, she was a candidate for CFO, and I was happy to support her for that."
Others appear to be hedging their bets in what could be a hotly contested race. Lobbyist Erik Kirk, son of Gov. Claude Kirk, the first Republican governor since Reconstruction (1967-1971), said Sink can keep his money, and he intends to send McCollum a check, too.
"I've elected to let her keep the contribution," Kirk said. "I'm excited that she's running for governor, and I'll be contributing to him as well."
Tara Klimek, a spokeswoman for Sink's campaign, said that as of Thursday $10,000 had been sent back to donors, which would equate to 20 people if each gave the maximum $500 contribution allowed by law.
"That's less than eight-tenths of 1 percent of what she raised for the CFO's race," Klimek said.
All refunded money will be disclosed when Sink files her next campaign report July 10.
McCollum does not face the same situation as Sink because he had not announced plans to seek re-election as attorney general or raised any money before declaring for governor.
Times/Herald researcher Lynette Norris contributed to this report. Steve Bousquet can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (850) 224-7263.