TALLAHASSEE — Republicans, beware.
For the first time since the GOP won control of state government in the mid 1990s, the Democratic Party and its leading candidate for governor together raised more money than their Republican counterparts at the start of a gubernatorial election season.
Since April 1, Alex Sink, the state's Democratic chief financial officer, raised almost $1.3 million, to Attorney General Bill McCollum's $1.04 million. The Democratic Party raised nearly $2 million, while the Republican Party of Florida raised almost $1.2 million.
First, blame the bad economy for the turn of fortunes.
Many big-donor Republicans tend to hail from the development and finance industries, which are crashing. Democrats rely more on lawyers, unions and small donors who haven't been as devastated by the housing industry meltdown.
Republican Gov. Charlie Crist's success in financing his U.S. Senate race may also be hurting McCollum's 2010 fundraising. Crist has leveraged the power of his office and personality to raise a record-setting $4.3 million.
"There's not much money out there, and Charlie Crist is taking a lot of it that McCollum needs," said Republican operative Roger Stone. "Charlie is the first to ask for money, and the likeliest to get it."
Sink has been hitting up donors for months, as well.
Though the Democratic edge isn't large and the 2010 elections are more than a year away, campaign finance data show Sink is cutting into Republican territory.
Sink, whose office helps regulate insurers, received at least $100,000 each from the insurance and development industries, according to a St. Petersburg Times/Miami Herald analysis of the campaign-finance quarter that ended June 30.
A former banker, Sink brought in about $74,000 from bankers and accountants and $100,000 from donors who listed their occupations as corporate leaders or business owners.
Her biggest contributors: lawyers, their employees and their spouses, who contributed at least $288,000, almost a quarter of her money.
McCollum's top supporters hail from the development industry, which ponied up about $230,000, nearly a quarter of his cash. The state's top lawyer, McCollum, received about $100,000 each from the legal and financial industries.
Sink began raising money in January, when she intended to run for re-election as CFO. When she announced for governor, she rolled most of her CFO war chest into the new campaign account.
Altogether, Sink raised $2.4 million and made expenditures of about $240,000. As a result, she has almost $1.2 million more in the bank than McCollum.
McCollum's spokeswoman, Shannon Gravitte, said the candidate "exceeded expectations'' by raising so much money since announcing his candidacy in May. She said McCollum is better-known and more experienced at campaigning than Sink.
Also, Gravitte criticized the Sink campaign's unusual reimbursement to the state for $17,000 worth of state-plane travel to cities where the CFO had official government business — as well as campaign events.
"We're leading in every poll, and we're not under a cloud of suspicion for use of the state plane," Gravitte said.
Both McCollum and Sink, though, face ethics complaints from political opponents over their use of state planes. Each denies wrongdoing.
Sink's spokesman, Paul Dunn, said "people are crossing party lines to support'' Sink because of her background as a successful businesswoman.
A handful of major Republican fundraisers for Crist, including Broward lawyer Scott Rothstein and former lobbyist Rodney Barreto from Miami-Dade, are breaking ranks with their party to support Sink.
Sink's campaign could also get a boost from the political organization built by Barack Obama's successful presidential Florida campaign, which identified and cultivated newly energized small donors.
The Florida Democratic Party has more donors and more registered voters than the Republican Party of Florida.
Internal party discontent with Republican state chairman Jim Greer also hampered fundraising after Obama won in Florida.
Republican spokeswoman Katie Gordon countered the criticism by noting that Republican candidates overwhelmingly kept their Florida legislative and congressional seats despite Obama's big spending in Florida.
"We're in pretty good shape, with McCollum raising more than $1 million in a few weeks and Charlie Crist raising $4.3 million," Gordon said. "Democrats don't have Barack Obama (on the ticket) in 2010. Nothing against CFO Sink, but she's not Barack Obama."
Obama's former Florida campaign chief, Steve Schale, acknowledged that Democrats are in for a tough fight against the Republican election machine. But he said the dire financial times might be a big factor that helps Democrats.
"In the past, Republicans had numerous people who could write big campaign checks from 10 different companies," Schale said. "Now those same donors don't even own 10 companies."
Miami Herald staff writer Beth Reinhard contributed to this report. Marc Caputo can be reached at mcaputo@MiamiHerald.com.