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State Republican Party spilling cash to oust Heller, Long in Pinellas

State Rep. Bill Heller and Republican challenger Jeff Brandes have become locked in the most expensive competitive race in Pinellas County .

With 11 days before the Nov. 2 election, the swing district that runs from north St. Petersburg to Clearwater is getting a heavy dose of television and mail advertisements.

The candidates are running up a large bill, combining to raise $440,0000, finance reports show. Brandes, an executive in his family lumber and development company, leads with more than $250,000 in contributions and in-kind support from the Republican Party. He has contributed $50,000 of his own money.

But in a sign of the state Republicans' desire to win the district, the GOP has spent hundreds of thousands of dollars more for ads. The state Democrats also have poured money into the race, though not as much.

All told, outside spending could push the cost of the race over $1 million if estimates by campaigns hold. The parties' ad spending isn't broken down by race in state finance reports.

"Certainly, Brandes and the Republican Party are saturating the airwaves with advertising," said retired political scientist Darryl Paulson, who tracks local politics.

Brandes has run a series of spots showcasing himself as an outsider taking on government. The latest one criticizes Heller, who has served two terms, as supporting higher taxes.

While Brandes says the charge is backed by specific votes, Heller says they distort his record. For example, Brandes cites Heller's support for a referendum increasing property taxes for a pay increase for Pinellas teachers in 2004.

"You have a gentleman who says he will stand up to his party but he's doing exactly what they want him to do," said Heller, a University of South Florida professor. "It's how they want to distort things. … They're paying big money for distortions."

Brandes' campaign and the state party declined or didn't respond to requests for how much they're spending.

Heller also has been on the receiving end of outside support, like the mailer sent by the pro-vouchers Florida Federation for Children in Lutz that he approved. His campaign also wouldn't provide estimates of outside spending.

But Heller expects it to be similar to another competitive Pinellas race where Republicans want to oust a Democrat, state Rep. Janet Long of Seminole.

At $225,000, Long has raised double what Republican challenger Larry Ahern has collected.

But the Republican Party of Florida has bankrolled network and cable television attack ads for Ahern, a pool company owner in Seminole. The ads call Long a "Tallahassee insider" who has "been in office too long."

Long said her campaign calculated the party spending to be $400,000, including $275,000 on TV ads alone.

State Democrats have yet to pay for her TV ads, she said, though they've provided $50,000 for staffing and consulting, similar to Heller.

Angered by attacks, Long called Ahern a "male version of Sarah Palin" funded by the party that led state government "in the ditch." Ahern's campaign disputed the spending figure without saying how much the party delivered.

Money also is flowing in a Pinellas County Commission race in North Pinellas.

Commissioner Susan Latvala has tapped her connections to raise nearly $138,000 cash and in-kind donations.

Challenger Bob Hackworth has raised nearly $54,000. The Democrat imposed a $100 limit and barred corporate donations, but bankrolled $22,000 of his effort.

Those campaign accounts don't take into account the county's truly large fundraisers.

U.S. Reps. C.W. Bill Young and Gus Bilirakis, both Republicans, created nearly $1 million campaign kitties but are heavily favored to win their races.

Same for Republican Jack Latvala, who seeks to return to the Florida Senate by running for state Sen. Charlie Justice's seat. Justice left the seat to run against Young.

Jack Latvala, a campaign consultant and ex-husband of the commissioner, has raised $710,000 against sparsely funded Democrat Nina Hayden.

For all that cash, donors and candidates say the recession has made collecting contributions harder this year. Real estate industry members have more limited wallets. Top of the ballot races for governor and U.S. Senate and constitutional amendment campaigns have sucked attention from local races.

"There's less money in the political realm," said Jack Latvala, leaving less ability to do mailings and other outreach to keep up with early voters.

For example, his race in District 16 has less financial interest from outside groups than in 2006. That year, Justice won against Republican Kim Berfield, despite being outspent $7 million to $2 million, his campaign consultant Mitch Kates recalled.

This year? Running against Young, Justice has raised "only" $310,000 — scraping by.

David DeCamp can be reached at ddecamp@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8779.

State Republican Party spilling cash to oust Heller, Long in Pinellas 10/22/10 [Last modified: Friday, October 22, 2010 11:35pm]

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