Wednesday, February 21, 2018

National and state campaigns in Florida raked in $12.8 million in one week

TAMPA — When Florida Gov. Jeb Bush ran for re-election 10 years ago, the brother of the sitting president raised $7.6 million.

One week this June, Florida political interests raked in $12.8 million.

Enough money to eliminate the $1.25 toll on the Sunshine Skyway Bridge for nine months. Or to pay the salaries of 284 Florida public schoolteachers. Or to cover four-fifths of the Tampa Bay Rays' starting rotation.

In one week.

The $12.8 million haul — documented by the Tampa Bay Times in a first-of-its-kind analysis — is just a snapshot of the political money moving in and out of this battleground state, including this week in Tampa for the Republican National Convention.

But what a picture it is.

From June 24-30, Florida candidates and political committees raised a little more than $10.8 million. Mitt Romney, President Barack Obama and super PACs banked an additional $1.9 million from Floridians.

And, we admit, the real number is higher. Our analysis excluded contributions to local candidates in each of Florida's 67 counties as well as donations to third-party groups advertising in Florida, such as the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which aren't required to list their donors.

"Money is what makes politics," said Akshay "A.K." Desai, one of Florida's top GOP fundraisers and finance chairman of the state Republican Party. "We have to raise dollars to get our voice out to the public, and, essentially, you get the message out by having the finances to be able to have advertisements on TV."

Candidates running for state House and Senate raised nearly $2.3 million in the last week of June, while the third-party state committees supporting or opposing those candidacies raised an additional $3.7 million.

The 115 men and women running for Florida's 27 seats in Congress raised $2.6 million in a week. Patrick Murphy, a Democrat running for the U.S. House against Allen West, raised $228,000 in seven days.

Rep. Cliff Stearns, the 12-term incumbent defeated in this month's Republican primary, raised nearly $50,000 in the last week of June. The unknown opponent who beat him — horse veterinarian Ted Yoho — raised $17,500.

The money filled campaign coffers in big chunks — Orlando personal injury lawyer Harry Jacobs donated $40,000 to pro-Obama super PAC Priorities USA — and small chunks — Democrat Alan Grayson received a $3 donation from California schoolteacher Lorna Farnum.

"I may not have the resources of the billionaires that ... spend an obscene amount of money to try to buy the elections, and I cannot even vote for Alan Grayson, as I do not live in Florida, but my small donation may enable the campaign committee to make a few phone calls to the voters in the congressional district and help re-elect Alan Grayson to Congress," Farnum, 54, said.

Jacobs does not remember how his large donation came together, whether he reached out to Priorities USA or vice versa. Jacobs, a semi-retired attorney who once ran for Congress, said he was shown the results of Priorities USA focus groups and believed the group's ads were effective.

"It was a feeling of needing to do my part," Jacobs, 64, said. "I do it from an ideology standpoint. I'm not doing it for an investment."

Loopholes, limits

A week in Florida fundraising details who gave and who got, but also the loopholes in the country's campaign finance system.

In the last week of June, incumbent Democratic Sen. Bill Nelson raised more money than any individual candidate in Florida, nearly $628,000 from 717 contributors. Nelson raised more money in seven days than Obama ($625,000) and Romney ($373,000) took in from Florida donors.

But Nelson's people power barely rivals the prowess of the super PACs, which aren't subject to a $2,500 contribution cap.

Karl Rove's American Crossroads got $501,500 from Florida donors in the same seven days as Nelson — but from three donors, not 717.

John Childs of Vero Beach wrote American Crossroads a $500,000 check on June 27. Childs, chief executive officer of the private equity firm J.W. Childs Associates, had written two $1 million checks the week before — one to the pro-Romney super PAC Restore Our Future and another to the conservative Club for Growth Action. (Those contributions are not included in our week total.)

Childs, 71, did not return requests seeking comment.

State legislative candidates appear even more hamstrung by contribution limits. But while state candidates can only accept $500 per donor to their personal campaign account, state law permits them to create separate political committees with no contribution limit.

The workaround allows candidates to take two checks from the same donor under different rules.

On June 28, state Sen. Jack Latvala, R-Clearwater, received $500 from the Committee for Responsible Nurse Anesthesia. The same group on the same day gave $2,500 to his third-party campaign organization, the Florida Leadership Fund.

The next day, June 29, state Rep. Chris Dorworth, a Republican from the Orlando area in line to be House speaker, received $5,500 from a company called American Managed Care. The company gave the maximum individual contribution, $500, to Dorworth's campaign account and $5,000 to his third-party group, Citizens for an Enterprising Democracy.

It's not the only way for Florida lawmakers to squeeze money out of donors, the analysis shows.

Candidates in Florida can raise money on behalf of political parties without the normal contribution limit, and the parties can donate up to $50,000 to state House and Senate candidates and $250,000 to statewide candidates for governor and the Cabinet. Parties can also contribute to a candidate's political committee. (State law prohibits candidates and parties from expressly agreeing to use the party account as a pass-through.)

John Tobia, a Republican state House member from Melbourne, received $30,000 from the Republican Party of Florida on June 27, more than half of all the money he raised between April and July. In an interview, Tobia said that he has participated in party fundraisers, including on fishing trips and to Walt Disney World. But he said the party support in the 2012 cycle was a by-product of redistricting, which forced Tobia into a district where nearly half of the voters were new to him.

"I raise checks $500 at a time to $25 at time. I don't have a CCE or an ECO," Tobia said, using the acronyms for the third-party groups in Florida — Committee of Continuous Existence, which raises money to contribute to candidates, and Electioneering Communication Organization, which raises money to spend on super PAC-style advertisements.

The Republican Party funds gave Tobia "the ability to help get my name out to a whole new group of electors," he said, adding that he also hoped they supported him because of his history in the Legislature.

Tracking an individual donation from start to finish can be impossible.

We know, for example, that a group called the Liberty Foundation of Florida received $56,800 in donations on June 27 and June 29 from two other groups, Florida Conservative Majority and Sunshine State Freedom Fund. But where those groups got the money to give to the Liberty Foundation is harder to say, and how the Liberty Foundation ultimately spent the money is somewhat unclear.

The Florida Conservative Majority is organized by Senate Majority Leader Andy Gardiner, R-Orlando. Most of its money in recent months has come straight from the Republican Party of Florida. Donors to the party are known, but how their money is spread, and who raised it, is not.

Sunshine State Freedom donors, meanwhile, include Tampa beer distributor Tom Pepin ($50,000) and the lobbying firm Corcoran & Johnston ($10,000). The "Corcoran" in the firm is Michael Corcoran, brother of state House Republican Richard Corcoran.

The money that made it into the Liberty Foundation of Florida's account appears to be part of nearly $3 million the group spent supporting candidates for state Senate that were backed by incumbent leaders.

"There really aren't any limits in Florida, if you know which pigeon hole to run the money through," said Mark Herron, a Tallahassee attorney who advises Democrats on state campaign finance and election law. "If you can identify big contributors and have the ability to set up the different types of entities, there is no limit on how much money a candidate can raise."

Money gap

If the last week in June is emblematic of Florida's fundraising picture, then Republicans on the whole are outraising Democrats.

That's not a surprise in a state dominated at every elected level by the GOP.

More interesting, however, is how Republicans are doing it.

Nelson, a Democrat, outraised Connie Mack IV and other Republicans running for the U.S. Senate by $500,000 while the Republicans and Democrats running for the U.S. House raised within $20,000 of each other. Obama, meanwhile, collected $251,000 more from Florida donors than Romney.

The difference is at the state level, where the divide between Republicans and Democrats is cavernous.

The political committee tied to Gov. Rick Scott, Let's Get to Work, raised $255,500 in the last week of June, all on June 27. He won't face re-election for two years.

The Republican Party of Florida raised $1.2 million in the last week of June — nearly $1 million more than the state Democratic party.

Richard DeVos, who co-founded Amway and owns the NBA's Orlando Magic, donated $100,000 to Florida Republicans that week. Between January and July, DeVos wrote 10 $500 checks to Democrats running for office in Florida.

The Florida Medical Association also contributed $100,000 to the state party in the last week of June. The doctors' lobby has contributed more than $560,000 to the Florida Republican Party since March 2011 and $20,000 to the state Democratic Party.

Convention cash cow

The money is still pouring in.

Tonight, for $20,000, you can have dinner with Florida Sen. Marco Rubio; for $1,000 you can hear him speak. (The speech will be free if you can wait until Thursday, when Rubio is scheduled to introduce Romney at the Tampa Bay Times Forum.)

Mack, who's hoping to become Florida's next U.S. senator, is asking for up to $10,000 for a Tuesday fundraiser headlined by Ann Romney.

Montana Republicans are offering a week's worth of breakfasts or dinners for prices ranging from $2,500 to $10,000.

And from 2-4 p.m. Wednesday, if you can squeeze it in, Florida Republicans will be raising money at a Tampa home.

"Multiple sponsorship levels available — please inquire," reads the invitation.

Bring your checkbook.

Aaron Sharockman can be reached at [email protected]

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