At a recent campaign rally, U.S. Rep. Kendrick Meek of Miami branded his U.S. Senate bid a "grass roots campaign," boasting of more than 1,000 donors in Florida.
"The more Floridians that we have who are stakeholders in this campaign sends a message, a message that we're here to do business on behalf of working people," he told about 100 supporters in the parking lot of a small South Florida diner.
But hundreds of thousands of dollars from out-of-state corporate interests and Washington lobbyists have helped Meek — the only Florida Democrat on the powerful Ways and Means Committee — emerge as a fundraising powerhouse with nearly $1.5 million in donations. Democratic party officials say he appears to have raised more than any other nonincumbent running for the Senate nationwide.
"When you are in a leadership position like he is, you do develop relationships with people all over the country," said Ana Cruz, a senior adviser to the campaign. "It's a testament to the number of people who believe in him in and outside of the state."
Cruz notes that Meek received support from more than 800 Florida donors who gave less than $200 each. "Those are dollars from working-class folks from all over," she said.
Since he began his campaign in mid January, Meek accepted $293,000 from political action committees representing law firms, drug companies, payday lenders and other businesses. PAC donations also came from Democratic Reps. James Clyburn of South Carolina and Xavier Becerra of California. In total, 44 percent of Meek's money came from outside Florida.
In contrast, 10 percent of the money raised by Meek's leading Democratic rival, state Sen. Dan Gelber, came from other states. He received $9,500 from political action committees.
"When you're sitting on Ways and Means you have the ability to raise a lot of money from lobbyists and special interests in Washington, and that's not a universe that we're talking to," said Gelber adviser Steve Schale, referring to the House committee that has sweeping powers over taxes, trade and health care.
Former House Speaker Marco Rubio of Miami, the only Republican candidate so far, raised about $255,000. He did not release a list of his donations and expenses, and the Federal Elections Commission has not yet posted his report online.
In a telephone call Thursday with reporters, Rubio suggested he might keep running even if Gov. Charlie Crist enters the GOP primary. A Quinnipiac University poll released this week suggests Crist would be tough to beat, with 66 percent of voters approving of the way he is handling his job.
In Florida's last open Senate race in 2004, Betty Castor faced criticism for heavily soliciting out-of-state money. About one-third of her total donations during the Democratic primary came from Emily's List, a national organization that bundles checks for female candidates who support abortion rights.
The dollars are much bigger this election cycle. More than a year out, Meek has raised more for the 2010 election than Castor had raised about four months before Election Day.
Gelber has raised about $363,000. Attorneys are his biggest source of campaign donations, followed by lobbyists, executives and bankers. Gelber is the former House Democratic leader and vice chairman of the commerce and higher education committees, but he serves in the minority party in Tallahassee.
Meek, on the other hand, is a member of the Democratic majority that controls Congress.
His campaign calculated that he raised nearly $17,000 a day in the first three months of the year. His total even surpassed Democratic incumbents like Sens. Chris Dodd of Connecticut and Michael Bennet of Colorado.
At a Hallandale Beach rally on Monday, Meek suggested his aggressive approach takes its cue from the president's record-setting campaign — though Barack Obama did not accept money from federal lobbyists and political action committees.
"We learned from the president that not only is your vote important, but your money is important," Meek said. "I'm not afraid to say I spend four to five hours on the phone a day."
A review of Meek's campaign report due Wednesday to the FEC found he spent more than $200,000 on cell phones, catering, a Web site, plane tickets and consulting. He paid more than $14,000 for a private jet to fly former President Bill Clinton to Florida for a fundraiser.
Meek's expenses also included $428 on a "campaign dinner'' at the Biltmore Hotel, $177 at Ruth's Chris Steakhouse in Washington and $149 at Houston's in Miami. "Some of these are strategy sessions and some are cultivating donor relationships," Cruz said.
One of the Democratic congressman's biggest donors is the political arm of Wackenhut, a Palm Beach Gardens-based security company that retains his mother and wife as lobbyists.
Wackenhut gave Meek the maximum donations of $5,000 for the primary and $5,000 for the general election. Miami-Dade County has accused Wackenhut of overbilling; the company denies any wrongdoing.
Meek — who would be Florida's first black senator if elected — also received big donations from former officers of the Congressional Black Caucus and Robert Johnson, the founder of Black Entertainment Television. Individual donors can give a maximum of $2,400 for the primary and another $2,400 for the general election.