ST. PETERSBURG — Jeff Brandes and Jim Frishe are slugging it out for Senate District 22, one of Florida's most competitive primary races.
The men have amassed sizable war chests, affording them the ability to flood airwaves and mailboxes. They have collected big-name endorsements, with Brandes snagging former Gov. Jeb Bush and Frishe landing former Gov. Bob Martinez.
Obscure political groups seeking to influence the leadership of the Senate in 2016 also are pouring money into the race. Frishe backs state Sen. Jack Latvala, R-Clearwater. Brandes doesn't.
Despite the contest's statewide attention, both candidates say they believe the race will come down to their local, grass roots efforts.
Brandes, 36, said he and his staffers have knocked on 42,000 doors since June to pitch his message. "People want to see that," he said. "The front-porch endorsements are the only ones that matter to us."
Frishe, 62, said he thinks the race will be about who conquers more porches and lawns. "In the end, I'm looking for endorsements from people who put yard signs in their yard," he said.
Senate District 22, covering much of south Pinellas and South Tampa, is a moderate district carried by Democrats Alex Sink in 2010 and Barack Obama in 2008. It will be decided in the Aug. 14 primary because Democrats failed to field a candidate.
Brandes and Frishe, both sitting House members, disagree on a wide range of issues.
While both generally follow the Republican conservative line, Brandes supports universal vouchers, is against taxing Internet sales and wants to aggressively privatize state functions to save money.
Frishe opposes universal vouchers, wants to tax Internet sales and advocates a cautious approach to privatization.
Brandes, a one-term House member and real estate director, served in the Army Reserves during the Iraq war in 2003. Frishe, a real estate broker, served six years in the House from 1984 to 1990 and then returned in 2006.
Brandes said Frishe has been ineffective as a career politician, adding: "He's the established candidate. If he has the answers, why hasn't he used them in the last 40 years?"
"Jeff clearly doesn't want to admit that I've done anything. He doesn't have a track record to run on. I've been active in my community for 40 years."
After entering the race in June, Brandes has raised nearly $91,675 and threw in $500,000 of his own money. Brandes, whose family started Cox Lumber, is worth at least $10 million. Brandes has spent about $265,000, mostly on paid staffers to knock on doors. "I'm proud to put my own money into it," Brandes said. "Pinellas and Hillsborough are important to me."
Frishe has raised $102,027 and spent $176,021 this year.
"I can't match him dollar for dollar," Frishe said. "I've got to go out and deliver my message to voters. I tell them who I am and what I stand for."
Outside groups are doing the same.
Both candidates and surrogate groups have sponsored increasingly negative mailers and ads.
It could make a difference.
"Mailers are more likely to be read by older voters," said Susan MacManus, a University of South Florida political science professor. "The older voters are more likely to pay attention. (They) vote in every election."
Anti-Frishe mailers, paid for by a group called Accountability in Government, an electioneering group with a Tallahassee address and a Washington, D.C., telephone number, paint Frishe as a tired, entrenched incumbent.
One mailer describes Frishe as "Mr. Ineffective" and says he "has walked all over us with higher taxes and fees."
The group has collected $753,000 since April, including a recent donation of $250,000 from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. Donations also have flowed from political funds controlled by Republicans like Senate President Mike Haridopolos; House Speaker Dean Cannon; and Rep. Chris Dorworth.
State Sen. Joe Negron's political committee, Alliance for a Stronger Economy, also donated $140,000. He is running against Latvala to be Senate president in four years.
As the Tampa Bay Times reported on July 13, the state elections database shows AIG got $38,000 from Floridians for Liberty, a political fund controlled by Brandes himself.
Frishe also is getting help.
Latvala transferred $100,000 from his Florida Leadership Fund to the Committee to Protect Florida, which has sent out leaflets critical of Brandes.
One mailer claims Brandes endangered homeowners by voting to let Citizens Property Insurance shift policies to unregulated firms and says he "fights for Big Insurance and sides with Special Interests."
Voters should expect the contest to get nastier in the campaign's final days — but the negative attacks could backfire.
"Voters could be turned off," MacManus said. "Some might not show up to vote."
Times political editor Adam Smith contributed to this story. Mark Puente can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8459. Follow him at Twitter at twitter.com/markpuente.