Thursday, June 21, 2018
Politics

Republican leaders steer millions to handpicked candidates

TALLAHASSEE — Two leading Republican Florida lawmakers hold an outsized influence over which party legislative candidates will get the fundraising advantage in next month's primary election, a testament to the power of incumbency despite a new redistricting law designed to weaken that clout.

Rep. Will Weatherford, of Wesley Chapel, and Sen. Don Gaetz, of Niceville, both chosen by Republicans to preside over the House and Senate for the next two years, have used their promotion to the Legislature's most powerful posts to raise at least $7.4 million dollars in campaign cash this election cycle, according to a Times/Herald analysis of campaign finance data released Friday. They are steering most of those dollars to a handful of races up for grabs in the Aug. 14 primary.

Some of the money is going directly into campaign accounts, as Weatherford has done with the $2.5 million he raised through the Republican Party of Florida and then delivered in checks or in-kind services to dozens of incumbents facing primaries or general election fights. Some is going into political committees, which then send it through a maze of shadowy electioneering organizations to pay for attack ads and mailers.

Gaetz, for example, steered $2.2 million from his RPOF account to his Florida Conservative Majority committee, which then delivered $2.2 million to the Liberty Foundation of Florida. The electioneering organization hired a Maryland-based firm to buy television attack ads and biting mailers in the primary battle between Rep. Mike Weinstein of Jacksonville and former Rep. Aaron Bean of Fernandina Beach.

Gaetz has made no secret of his support for Bean over Weinstein and he, along with other Senate Republican leaders, has also taken sides in the bitter battle between former Senate president Tom Lee, of Brandon, and Rep. Rachel Burgin, of Riverview. They have also endorsed Rep. John Legg, of Port Richey, in his primary against former Rep. Rob Wallace and John Korsak, both of Tampa. But Gaetz said he has not openly weighed in the other Tampa Bay Senate feud between St. Petersburg Reps. Jim Frishe and Jeff Brandes.

"These are three races that are worthy of support because all three candidates can win in the general election and can add value to the Senate in the next four years,'' Gaetz said. He said he has refrained from getting involved in the Frishe/Brandes race "because I don't believe we ought to spread ourselves too thin."

None of this is sitting well with Republicans who have found themselves on the wrong side of the men with the big bucks.

"We have some leaders in the party trying to determine how people should vote and it's not a pretty picture,'' said Weinstein, a lawyer in the Duval County state attorney's office. "If I win, it indicates that a few people in Tallahassee don't necessarily get to pick who represents who. If I lose, it bolsters that style and gives them reason to keep doing it."

Weatherford defends his decision to support incumbent Republicans because many of them were thrown into new districts because of the new Fair Districts reapportionment rules that required legislators draw maps that didn't protect incumbents.

"We had a lot of members running in districts that were unfamiliar to them,'' Weatherford said. "We wanted to make sure they had the resources to win."

In contrast to the Senate, Weatherford said the money the House has steered to incumbents is "all positive. We're not going after anybody,'' he said.

He has raised $1.3 million for his Committee for a Conservative House in addition to the money raised through the party. But large chunks of the money have left Weatherford's coffers and are transferred in and out of so many political committees that it is impossible to tell who is behind them.

For example, Weatherford sent $75,000 to Florida Forward, the political committee of Rep. Richard Corcoran, R-Trinity, himself a designee for House speaker in 2016. Corcoran then wrote big checks from the $421,000 he has raised to other political committees. Among them: $125,000 to a committee run by Miami Republican Rep. Carlos Trujillo, $90,000 to the political committee of Sen. Mike Fasano, R-New Port Richey, who is now a House candidate, and $50,000 to the political committee of Miami Republican Rep. Jose Oliva.

Weatherford also gave big checks and in-kind services to several candidates using his RPOF account: Miami Reps. Michael Bileca received $52,000, Jeanette Nunez got $33,000 and Trujillo received $44,000; Reps. Ronald "Doc" Renuart of Ponte Vedra Beach got $38,000, Doug Broxson of Milton received $49,000 and John Tobia of Melbourne got $38,300.

While the Republican primary numbers dwarf the amounts being spent by Democrats, Weatherford and Gaetz promised similar firepower in the general election.

"We're going to do whatever we have to do to win,'' Weatherford said.

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