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Tight Florida Senate races targeted by dark money group

If the ads succeed in persuading Democrats or independent voters to choose the fringe candidates in three competitive races, it benefits the mainstream Republican who is running.

TALLAHASSEE — Voters in three competitive Florida Senate races are seeing a deluge of political mail ads funded by a mystery donor that aim to “confuse” in an apparent effort to shave votes from Democratic candidates.

The mailers, which feature messaging on issues that historically appeal to Democrats, advertise little-known, no-party candidates who have not actively campaigned. The ads urge voters to “cut the strings” from party-backed candidates.

Voters in three key state Senate races — Senate District 9 in Central Florida and Senate Districts 37 and 39 in Miami-Dade and Monroe counties — have been bombarded with the political ads although little is known about the group that paid for them. If the ads succeed in persuading Democrats or independent voters to choose the fringe candidates in those races, it benefits the mainstream Republican who is running.

Proclivity, a donor that had never made political contributions in Florida, showed up in campaign finance records in early October. The donor poured $550,000 into political committees, which quickly used the money to buy what is believed to be hundreds of thousands of mailed political advertisements in support of the no-party candidates

In the high-stakes race to pick up and defend seats in the Florida Senate, the political attacks have captured the attention of Senate Democrats, who need to flip three seats to achieve a 20-20 split in the chamber, which will be a longshot this year.

Anders Croy, a spokesman for Senate Victory, the Democratic caucus' campaign arm, accused Senate Republicans of trying to “trick voters” with the ads.

“This coordinated, dark money effort to siphon votes from Democratic candidates is transparent only in its attempt to help weak Republican candidates,” Anders said in a statement.

Erin Isaac, a spokeswoman for the Florida Republican Senatorial Campaign Committee, did not respond to requests for comment.

Confusing voters

The point of the ads is to “sow confusion” in the races and it is a strategy often used by both Democrats and Republicans, said Dan Smith, a political science professor and elections expert at the University of Florida.

“It’s not necessarily to get support for the challenger, but to diminish the support for the incumbent,” he said. “If you could peel off some voters who are not getting strong partisan cues from the parties, those are (voters with no party affiliations), the challenger of the major party has a chance. This is something that is done on the right and the left.”

The mystery donor ads, however, use messaging that is meant to appeal to Democratic voters. In one case, a mailer advertises Alex Rodriguez, a little-known candidate in Senate District 37, with promises to fight for climate change, hold police accountable and guarantee a “living wage.”

Senate Democrats have spent hundreds of thousands of dollars defending incumbent Sen. Jose Javier Rodriguez, who is running against Latinas for Trump founder Ileana Garcia, in Senate District 37.

This election cycle, Senate Democrats and Republicans have spent months pouring resources into competitive races that could reshape the chamber’s future political landscape. Democrats, who lost control of the Senate in the 1990s, have spent more than $700,000 to flip Senate Districts 9 and 39, which their well-funded GOP opponents are attempting to keep red.

In District 9, a swing district that includes Seminole County and parts of western Volusia County, labor attorney Patricia Sigman, a Democrat, is running against former state Rep. Jason Brodeur to replace GOP state Sen. David Simmons. The race for District 39, vacated by term-limited GOP state Sen. Anitere Flores, covers Monroe County and parts of Miami-Dade and features former state representative Javier Fernandez, a Democrat, and current state representative Ana Maria Rodriguez, a Republican.

Proclivity, the mysterious group whose money is tied to the mailers, paid $550,000 to two political committees — Our Florida PC and The Truth PC — on Oct. 3. Two days later, the political committees spent the money on the mail ads, campaign finance records show.

$500,000 buys a lot of mailers

It is unclear how many mailers were bought, but it could be in the hundreds of thousands.

“It is really hard to tell when you see $500,000 how many actual pieces that translates into. There is no real way to do that,” said Christian Ziegler, the vice chair of the Republican Party of Florida, who has background experience with digital and mail political ads.

That’s because the cost of mailed political advertisements are influenced by their size, postage and design. They can cost between 30 cents and $2 a piece, Ziegler said. The average cost is 30 to 50 cents, he added.

Mail ads are also less likely to be read than digital ads, Ziegler said.

“It basically costs $8 to get a person to actually read your mail,” Ziegler said. “Now, for eight bucks you can actually run 1,000 Facebook ads. So, when you’re paying eight bucks, do you want one person to read a piece of mail or do you want to deliver 1,000 ads in front of someone’s face?”

The strategy could be one tied to demographics. Older people are more likely to read mailed political advertisements, according to Susan MacManus, a political science professor at the University of South Florida.

“The political parties have failed us. Let’s send independent leaders to Tallahassee for a change,” says one mailer sent to voters in all three Senate districts.

Another mailer, delivered to voters in the same three districts, says “too many party line puppets in Tallahassee.”

“It’s time to cut the strings,” reads another that was sent to voters in all three Senate districts.

Facebook’s ad library has not registered any digital ads paid for by Our Florida PC or The Truth PC.

Who or what is Proclivity?

Proclivity describes itself as a “social welfare” organization in state campaign finance records, and it lists an Atlanta UPS box as an address. But there are no records of Proclivity being a registered business in Georgia or Florida, or being a registered tax-exempt organization, according to business and federal tax records.

The Truth is run out of an office in Winter Springs by Hailey DeFilippis, according to its filing with the state. The Orlando Sentinel reported that a yard sign for District 9 GOP candidate, former Rep. Jason Brodeur, was seen tucked behind a bush at the Winter Springs address.

None of the three no-party candidates running in 9, 37 or 39 could be reached for comment. Neither could Jose Riesco or Maricela Cardenas, who serve as two of the no-party candidates' campaign treasurers.

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