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Campaign finance laws can help or hinder candidates switching races

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Because of differences between federal and state campaign finance laws, MikeHaridopolos can use money left over from his failed U.S. Senate bid to run for state Senate, but Matt Gaetz, who switched from a state Senate seat to a congressional effort, is out of luck.

Haridopolos, a Merritt Island Republican and former Senate President, is mulling a run for Senate District 17, currently held by Thad Altman, a term-limited Rockledge Republican.

Haridopolos also ran to unseat incumbent Democratic U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson in the 2012 election, but backed out of that race in mid-2011.

According to Federal Election Commission records, he still has $944,745 in his campaign committee, “Friends of Mike H.”

Gaetz, a Fort Walton Beach Republican now in the state House, was running to replace his term-limited father Don Gaetz in the state Senate.

After U.S. Rep. Jeff Miller announced his retirement, Gaetz instead decided to run for that seat. Gaetz leaves a state campaign war chest of more than $520,000.

Here’s the rub: Gaetz can’t just move his money to a congressional campaign because Florida law says he has to “dispose” of those funds after withdrawing from the race.

He has 90 days to so do once he officially takes his name out of contention. He was still listed on the Division of Elections’ candidate website as of Wednesday evening.

Among other options, Gaetz will have to “return pro rata to each contributor (any) funds that have not been spent or obligated.”

He can also donate campaign money to charity, deposit it in the state’s Election Campaign Financing Trust Fund or General Revenue Fund, or he can give up to $25,000 to the Republican Party of Florida. 

On the other hand, should Haridopolos jump into the state Senate race, he can — generally speaking — apply his federal campaign dollars toward that bid, according to Paul S. Ryan, deputy executive director of the Campaign Legal Center, a nonpartisan campaign finance watchdog.

“In this instance, the only restriction on a federal candidate’s use of campaign funds is that the candidate cannot convert the funds to personal use,” as in using the money on nonpolitical expenses like a mortgage payment, he said.

“In order for a federal candidate to use their campaign funds to support a state office campaign, state campaign finance law would require the funds to be contributed to, and then spent out of, the candidate’s state campaign committee,” Ryan added. “So, in the eyes of federal law, this is deemed a contribution from a federal committee to a state committee.”

Before joining Florida Politics, journalist and attorney James Rosica was state government reporter for The Tampa Tribune. He attended journalism school in Washington, D.C., working at dailies and weekly papers in Philadelphia after graduation. Rosica joined the Tallahassee Democrat in 1997, later moving to the courts beat, where he reported on the 2000 presidential recount. In 2005, Rosica left journalism to attend law school in Philadelphia, afterwards working part time for a public-interest law firm. Returning to writing, he covered three legislative sessions in Tallahassee for The Associated Press, before joining the Tribune’s re-opened Tallahassee bureau in 2013. He can be reached at

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