Campaign donations in Florida governor’s race hit $80 million

Gubernatorial candidates are likely to break the record for most cash raised since the $150 million spent four years ago by Gov. Rick Scott and Charlie Crist.
Published June 22, 2018

A Ukrainian oligarch with property in South Beach; a conservative Chicago entrepreneur and a liberal hedge fund billionaire; two candidate's dads, a couple of loyal business partners and three of Florida's most powerful corporations.

Those are among the donors who have made six-figure investments into the candidates in the Florida's governor's race, according to a Times/Herald analysis of campaign contributions through May 2018. The list includes some of the nation's wealthiest individuals and Florida's most powerful businesses and has already raised $80 million, likely to become even more expensive than the $150 million spent four years ago by Gov. Rick Scott and Charlie Crist.

Republican Congressman Ron DeSantis has raised nearly one fourth of all his contributions from five individual millionaires, records show.

RELATED COVERAGE: Billionaires, bankers and a Ukranian oligarch: See who's funding Florida's campaign for governor

Billionaire George Soros and an affiliated organization have together given nearly 18 percent of all the money raised by Democrat Andrew Gillum's campaign. And two millionaire Democratic candidates — former Miami Beach Mayor Philip Levine and Orlando businessman Chris King — are responsible for giving themselves more than half of all the money their campaigns and committees have raised to date.

But individuals aren't the only big donors eager to get a chance to influence the next Florida governor.

The biggest contributions received by Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam, the GOP frontrunner, have come from some of the state's largest institutions: U.S. Sugar, Florida Power & Light and Disney.

The candidates say their donors are investing in the candidate's agenda, character and performance, not betting that if they are elected, they will produce a financial return.

But while U.S. Sugar, FPL and Disney have given millions directly to Putnam, they have also collectively given more than $1 million each to Associated Industries of Florida and the Florida Chamber of Commerce, two Tallahassee institutions whose enormous stable of lobbyists heavily influence the governor and Legislature.

The political committees of AIF and the Florida Chamber are the largest contributors to Putnam.

Mark Wilson, executive director of the Florida Chamber, said that even though the chamber's legislative agenda closely tracks the priorities of the big donors, it is not dictated by them.

"Someone could give $10 million to our political program and it's not going to have any bearing on the legislative program of the Florida Chamber,'' he said.

Only Levine has come close to getting a $10 million contribution from a single donor, and it was a gift to himself. He gave his campaign $9.2 million or 52 percent of all funds he's received. The next biggest total donor among all the candidates in the race — $4.4 million —came from AIF and its six political committees to Putnam.

King, the Orlando lawyer who developed a business on bringing affordable housing to Central Florida, also gave himself a multi-million dollar gift: $3.2 million, or 51 percent of his total.

Jeff Greene, the Palm Beach billionaire and latest Democrat to enter the race, said Wednesday that he, too, will join the self-financing trend and will "spend what it takes." He said he will accept donations from individuals, but only as long as they don't exceed $100.

The Florida Chamber is the fourth largest donor among all candidates in the race, with $1.9 million from two political committees directed to Putnam.
Wilson notes that the Chamber has not contributed to DeSantis because "Commissioner Putnam is a strong opponent of Las Vegas-style casino gambling and his primary opponent has taken a lot of money from one of the biggest casino operators in the world."

Records show that Las Vegas Sands owner Sheldon Adelson and his wife have contributed $9,000 to DeSantis' campaign.

Disney is not only a Chamber member, it is the third largest donor to Putnam, having contributed $834,443 to date. Its top political priority has been to oppose the expansion of casinos in Florida. For the last two years, Disney and its affiliates have worked with the Seminole Tribe of Florida to finance Amendment 3 on the November ballot that will prohibit the Legislature from expanding gambling in Florida and require all future expansion to have a statewide vote.

DeSantis wants Putnam's Tallahassee-heavy contribution list to become an issue in the primary race.

"Putnam is funded by every special interest group in the Tallahassee swamp he's served over his 22 year career as a politician,'' said DeSantis spokesman David Vasquez..

By contrast, DeSantis' donors are individuals who have a record of donating to ideological conservatives, often considered outsiders.

Richard Uihlein, the conservative Illinois billionaire who made his fortune off packing supplies, has become the largest donor to mid-term campaigns.

He was the top contributor to DeSantis with $750,000, amounting to 7 percent of DeSantis' total. Uihlein and his wife, Elizabeth, have supported scores of campaigns including Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, Donald Trump and Roy Moore, including after Moore was accused of inappropriate behavior with underage girls.

After Levine's gift to himself, the next largest contributions to the former Miami Beach mayor's campaign came from Leonard and Alex Blavatnik, Ukrainian-born billionaire brothers who have given $525,000, primarily through Access Industries. The Blavatniks were major contributors to Levine's Miami Beach mayoral campaigns and are principal investors in the Faena District, a redeveloped stretch of South Beach for luxury hotel rooms and condos.

Leonard Blavatnik, now a U.S. citizen, was named the second wealthiest man in Britain by the Sunday Times. He built his wealth through the control of oil producer TNK and retains a 26 percent stake in RUSAL, the world's sixth-largest aluminum company, which is controlled by Oleg Deripaska, a close ally of Vladimir Putin, according to Bloomberg.. Blavatnik served on RUSAL's board until December 2016.

Other South Beach real estate moguls have also contributed heavily to the former mayor's political venture. Scott Robins, Levine's partner in the Sunset Harbour developments in South Beach, along with Robins' father and brother, have together given Levine $423,000, and John Christopher Burch, the billionaire founder and CEO of Burch Creative Capital, a firm that manages venture investments and brand development, has given $103,000.  He owns Faena House in South Beach.

After King's donations to himself, the Orlando businessman's next largest contributors were his business partner, Paul W. Morgan, and his father, David King.

For Gillum, the largest checks have come from Soros, the liberal mega donor and hedge fund manager, followed by Stephen Silberstein, a California-based millionaire who contributes to left-of-center causes.
Soros first met Gillum years ago as part of his Declaration of Independence campaign and the families have remained in touch, said Geoff Burgan, Gillum spokesman. Soros, who gave Gillum $500,000, is also the primary supporter to Gillum's second largest contributor, Collective Future, a 501(c)4 dedicated to electing black candidates, which gave $266,000, election records show.

Graham, the former congresswoman, has raised more money in smaller donations than any of the candidates, and her campaign has relied so far on fewer large checks from individual millionaires than any other candidate.

Records show Graham has more than 35,100 individual contributions, compared to Gillium, who has just over 25,800. DeSantis has about 15,900 contributors, compared to about 15,300 for Putnam. The self-funders, Levine and King, have the least with about 3,400 and 3,800 donors each.
Bob and Adele Graham, Graham's parents, gave $250,000, and the former governor's old college fraternity brother, Winter Park developer Jim Pugh contributed $150,000. The largest individual contributor to Graham, however, is James D. Finch, owner of Phoenix Construction Services outside Panama City.

Finch, a former NASCAR team owner, gave $290,000 — second to Emily's List, the national organization that recruits and backs pro-choice women, which has given Graham $471,000.

Finch's companies have been fined nearly $2 million by state and federal authorities for environmental violations, including a $1.7 million fine from the Florida Department of Environmental Protection levied in 2009.
Graham's campaign told the Times/Herald it isn't embarrassed by the contribution, however.

"Yep, Finch has contributed. He obviously admires Gwen's leadership," said Matt Harringer, Graham campaign spokesman. "So does the Environmental Defense Fund, which has also given to Gwen — and the more than 20,000 individual supporters who have also contributed to Gwen."

Times/Herald Tallahassee Bureau staff writer Lawrence Mower contributed to this report.