The first sign that the much ballyhooed Tampa Bay Times investigation into Florida Republican fundraising at South Texas’ King Ranch is more smoke than it is fire is the fact that its headline is a question, “Why won’t Florida GOP leaders talk about hunting trips to King Ranch in Texas?”
If reporters Craig Pittman and Michael Van Sickler had nailed this story, they wouldn’t have to ask that question.
But what Pittman and Van Sickler did do is make the otherwise ordinary — political fundraising financed by a “special interest” — read like the scandal of the summer. Their well-written work includes a reference to the movie “Fight Club,” an anecdote about a door being “slammed” on a reporter, and a head-turning quote from a lobbyist who should have known better than to open his mouth.
Yet, like many whose worlds revolve around the 32301, I am still having trouble understanding where is the meat of this story. So U.S. Sugar made significant in-kind contributions to the Republican Party of Florida to pay for the travel expenses of Republican leaders to visit King Ranch so that said leaders could raise significant money for the party and their campaigns. This is everyday life in Florida politics. This is how candidates and parties raise money under the system we have.
This is the law.
This is the post-gift ban world which the Tampa Bay Times editorialized for in 2005-6. Like so many of the remedies the newspaper thought would “clean-up” the political system — term limits, lobbying fee disclosures, etc. — the gift ban has had the exact opposite effect intended: state politics is more closeted, not less; there is more money in the system, not less; lobbying firms are more powerful, not less.
Having spent the better part of this week thinking about this story, reviewing the campaign finance laws, and arguing online with Pittman, here are five things I think I think about the non-story about GOP fundraising at King Ranch.
1. If there was genuinely a story here, don’t you think I’d be popping off about it? Or Scott’s opponent, Charlie Crist? Or the Florida Democratic Party?
It’s been six days since this story showed up online and Crist has yet to make hay of it in his campaign to unseat Scott. Florida Dems, who tend to shoot first and ask questions later, have been up until this point remarkably quiet, passing on the opportunity to blast Republican leaders.
Why is that? Because those who actually work in politics know that this news is non-news.
After I first raised this point to Pittman, true to form he asked about how many of the politicians named in the story are my clients. Trust me, Craig, Rick Scott ain’t my client. Adam Putnam ain’t my client. Some of those named here do, in fact, advertise on SaintPetersBlog.
But the point remains, if the opponents of Rick Scott and Co. aren’t using this story as ammunition, maybe it’s because it’s a dud.
2. As colorful a story as this is, fundraising trips like this happen all of the time.
Within the last month, Florida Senate leaders raised money while playing golf at Pebble Beach and while taking in a ballgame at Yankees stadium. Next month, House leaders have an event planned for the U.S. Open. Florida pols raise money on Disney cruises, at Universal Studio, and during every type of sporting event. Almost invariably, the hosts donate in-kind (in-kind is actually a verb in Florida political circles, as in “We’ll just in-kind the cost of the bar to the campaign”) the costs associated with the event, including travel, to the party.
This is standard operating procedure. What is so special about the hunting trips to King Ranch is beyond me. I guess we’ll just have to wait for Pittman and Van Sickler to write similar stories about every fundraising trip in which the donors pick-up the tab for lodging and travel. IF they do, they’ll be writing all of the time
3. Let’s go back to the headline,“Why won’t Florida GOP leaders talk about hunting trips to King Ranch in Texas?” To specifically answer that question, it’s because Florida GOP leaders NEVER talk about fundraising trips, nor should they. They’re part of an overall campaign strategy and to reveal any aspect of the trips is to jeopardize the Florida GOP’s top priority, which is to win elections. Winning elections trumps talking to reporters.
As a matter of fact, I can’t even get the RPOF to talk to me about fundraising trips — and that’s when the trips involve my political clients. Even when I try to explain that “I am a booster for the political industry” and just want to promote the cool factor of certain fundraising trips, the answer has always been, “No comment.”
So it makes perfect sense that in response to any question about fundraising from Pittman and Van Sickler, the answer was, “No comment.” Because that’s what it always is.
As for former RPOF chair Lenny Curry saying he did not know about this specific set of fundraising trips, that also makes perfect sense. There is an unofficial wall between the party and its legislative campaign and fundraising arms — especially after disgraced former chair Jim Greer raided the House and Senate campaign accounts to finance his lavish lifestyle. Just as Sergey Brin probably doesn’t know about the birthday cake the employees at Google have purchased for one of their colleagues, Curry is not going to know about every single fundraiser. That’s not what the party chair’s job is.
As for vice chair Blaise Ingoglia not knowing about the King Ranch fundraisers, traditionally the vice chair of the Florida GOP is lucky if party operatives tell him where the bathroom at RPOF headquarters is. I understand Ingoglia likes to talk to reporters, but in this case, he should have stuck by the party line, “No comment.”
4. The Tampa Bay Times would prefer that we all live in a world where political fundraising didn’t exist, but since that is not reality, it will demonize anyone who is not working towards this utopia.
Remember, the reason political parties raise money is to pay for the media they are not receiving via earned media, i.e., what comes from a newspaper like the Times. All of the money raises is for direct mail, radio ads, paid staff and TV commercials to communicate a message which, almost by definition, competes with the message delivered by journalists. In essence, the Republican Party of Florida is competing with the Tampa Bay Times for readers’/voters’ attention.
The Times, like an business entity, would like nothing better than to have a monopoly on readers’/voters’ attention. Unfortunately for it, those who do not completely share the Times‘ worldview, i.e. U.S. Sugar, there is all of the paid media described above through which its political allies can communicate a message.
The Times does not like this, hence you have never read a story in the newspaper, extolling the virtues of political fundraising. Not once have you seen a headline, “Republicans bravely raise gobs and gobs of campaign money” or “Democrats wisely raise as much money from donors as possible.”
Instead, invariably any story the Times writes about political fundraising is how corrupting it is, how evil it is. The King Ranch story is simply an attack on one of the Times’ rivals for readers’/voters’ attention.
P.S. Hopefully, one day, this blog will be able to publish the how-is-this-not-extortion line of questioning employed by one of the reporters in a series of emails with one of the politician’s political advisors.
5. Finally, when all is said and done, voters don’t care about what happened at King Ranch. Sure, sure, there were a lot of snarky comments and tweets immediately after the story went live. And Pittman, in his near zealotry, is touting his good work as much as he can. There will probably be a follow-up story, in fact.
But, and I am saying this as a political consultant who polls constantly on voter attitudes, the average voter has little appetite for stories about campaign finance. They just assume that there is a plague on all politicians’ houses and that they all would sell their mothers for another six-figure campaign contribution.
The Times attempts to cast a shadow over the entire process by injecting a quote from State Attorney Willie Meggs.
“It may not be illegal, but there’s probably something wrong with it because it’s not transparent,” said Meggs, who this past year has specialized in split-the-baby judgments, i.e. the Jameis Winston case.
Pittman and Van Sickler might as well have asked the pols here if they still beat their wives, that’s how inane Meggs answer is. Because, like it or not, everyone here operated by the exact letter of the law.
Don’t like the law, elect new lawmakers. But hold the criticism of a system you don’t understand.