Big Florida election brings money from all sides

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The unprecedented wave of television ads airing in Florida’s bitter contest for governor has been paid by a wide array of interests ranging from casino owners, unions, electric utilities, and even the incumbent himself.

Campaign reports filed late Friday show that Gov. Rick Scott and his wife donated $12.8 million to the Republican Party of Florida in the past month.

Scott maintained that he had to dip into his own wallet to counter what he called a “smear campaign” coming from a group linked to a billionaire California environmentalist but it was a reminder of how high-stakes – and expensive – the campaign between Scott and main rival Charlie Crist has become.

Scott and Crist combined raised nearly $100 million for their campaigns according to final reports, but the total amount spent on this year’s race far exceeds that after including money steered toward the state’s two parties and the money spent by outside groups to influence the election.

“This is nuclear. It’s unbelievable,” said Crist on Friday. “More than a presidential election. It is absolutely absurd. He obviously thinks he can buy Florida again, and I don’t think that’s going to happen.”

Both candidates were appearing at campaign events on Saturday in an effort to drum up voters in the closing days. Crist appeared at the homecoming of Florida A&M University, the state’s public historical black university. Scott, joined by fellow Republicans like U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio, hit GOP strongholds in southwest Florida.

Those stops were only attracting a few hundred supporters at a time. In a large state like Florida, it’s television advertising that remains a key to winning, which costs millions to blanket major media markets in South Florida and the Tampa Bay area.

Scott, a multi-millionaire, spent more than $70 million of his family’s fortune to bankroll his maverick bid for governor in 2010 where he took on a GOP candidate backed by much of the state’s Republican hierarchy. He initially predicted that he would be able to avoid spending his own money this time around, but that changed in the final days of the campaign.

Scott said he was forced to put in his own money because NextGen Climate, which raised nearly $20 million, targeted him in a series of ads as a friend of polluters and utility companies. The main force behind the group is former hedge fund manager Tom Steyer, who targeted Scott because of his skepticism about climate change.

“There was this radical left-wing billionaire out of the West Coast that started running a smear campaign and I was going to make sure we had a strong finish,” Scott said. “So you know we invested.”

But it’s not just been Steyer and Scott bankrolling the election.

The money has come in from outside groups like the Republican Governors Association, which kicked in more than $18 million to help Scott, as well as from a long line of corporations and other interests that have a big stake in what happens under the next governor.

The Seminole Tribe of Florida, which has key parts of its gambling deal with the state expire next year, in the last six weeks donated $700,000 to the Republican Party and $350,000 to the Florida Democratic Party. They weren’t the only gambling interests also kicking in money. Casino magnate Sheldon Adelson, who wants Florida to authorize resort casinos, donated $1.5 million to the GOP this month, which adds to the $250,000 he previously gave to one of Scott’s re-election committees.

Other major donors include Florida’s major utility companies, U.S. Sugar, and trade groups affiliated with Florida’s business community. Large donors aiding Crist include the two unions that represent Florida’s teachers and government workers and well-known law firms in the state. George Soros, a billionaire and longtime liberal political donor, gave $1 million to the Florida Democratic Party in early October.

When asked about the huge amounts of money steered toward Scott and his party, he maintained that those giving him money were interested in “good government.”

“They want a good economy, they want to make sure that their families can succeed here,” Scott said.

The money fueling both campaigns has not been of a campaign topic, although the Republicans have roundly criticized Crist for accepting $90,000 linked to strip club owners including a club that once was investigated for illegal drugs and prostitution. The GOP has demanded Crist return the money and that this shows that Crist doesn’t value women.

Crist has steadfastly refused to give the money back and instead maintains he will support a woman’s right to an abortion and to equal pay.

AP reporter Brendan Farrington contributed to this post.

Republished with permission of the Associated Press.