Florida GOP flexes its fundraising muscles in legislative races

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With less than a month before Election Day, new campaign-finance reports show Republican legislative candidates often dominating the money game against their Democratic opponents, reports Jim Saunders of the News Service of Florida.

In some races, the state Republican Party poured tens of thousands of dollars of cash into House candidates’ campaigns during a two-week period in September — even into races that have drawn relatively little attention. In other instances, GOP candidates simply scooped up more contributions than their Democratic counterparts.

The biggest fund-raiser among House candidates between Sept. 15 and Sept. 28 was Rep. Scott Plakon, a Longwood Republican who faces a tough challenge in District 30 from Maitland Democrat Karen Castor Dentel.

Plakon collected $71,910 during the two-week period, with $49,000 of that total coming in a check from the state GOP, according to the reports filed before a Friday deadline. Dentel, by comparison, raised $26,828 during the period, with none of that amount coming from the Florida Democratic Party. Both candidates received in-kind support, such as polling, from their parties.

Similarly, in nearby District 49, Orlando Republican Marco Pena collected $47,564 during the period, with $25,000 coming from the state GOP. Democrat Joe Saunders raised $10,090, though he appeared to hold a slight overall financial edge as of Sept. 28 because of earlier contributions and expenditures.

State law allows candidates to receive up to $50,000 from the parties, and the GOP has spread cash to numerous candidates. During the most-recent period, for example, it sent $49,000 each to Rep. Larry Ahern, R-St. Petersburg, and Rep. Shawn Harrison, R-Tampa. Neither faces well-funded opponents, and the races have not drawn much statewide buzz.

But not all of the Republican candidates’ financial advantage stems from party contributions. With the GOP in total control of the Legislature and state government, many Republican candidates have been able to tap corporations and other donors who have interests in Tallahassee.

For instance, House District 7 candidate Halsey Beshears, a Monticello Republican, collected $32,700 in contributions between Sept. 15 and Sept. 28, far outdistancing Bristol Democrat Robert Hill, who raised $7,760. Among the industries that contributed to Beshears during the period: ophthalmologists, citrus growers, pari-mutuel facilities, nursing homes, HMOs and banks.

Plakon was followed in House fund-raising during the period by Harrison, with $61,825; Ahern, with $61,225; Pena; Rep. Tom Goodson, R-Rockledge, with $40,675; and Beshears.

Among Senate candidates, the top fund-raiser during the period was former Rep. Aaron Bean, R-Fernandina Beach, with $46,330. Bean was followed by Sen. Ellyn Bogdanoff, R-Fort Lauderdale, with $39,366; Sen. Bill Montford, D-Tallahassee, with $38,176; Sen. David Simmons, with $34,522; and Bean’s opponent, Jacksonville Beach Democrat Nancy Soderberg, with $32,589.

Contributions to candidates are only part of the picture of financing legislative races. The parties can run advertisements to try to sway voters, as can outside groups that, at least in some instances, are linked to legislative leaders.

But the candidate contribution reports offer insight about where money is flowing — and where it isn’t.

Among the candidates who raised little during the two-week period was Frostproof Democrat Eileen Game, who had been given little chance to win the House District 42 race until Sept. 24, when Rep. Mike Horner, R-Kissimmee, dropped out because he was linked to a prostitution investigation in Orange County.

Game raised only $1,235 during two weeks, including $715 between the time Horner dropped out and the end of the period. Celebration Republican Mike LaRosa replaced Horner on Oct. 1 as the GOP’s candidate, though Horner’s name will remain on the ballot.

As another example, Orlando Republican Will McBride reported raising $1,800 for his race against Rep. Darren Soto, D-Orlando, in Senate District 14. Soto raised $16,575. Nevertheless, McBride loaned his campaign $205,000 earlier this year, which has allowed him to outspend Soto so far.

Peter Schorsch is the President of Extensive Enterprises and is the publisher of some of Florida’s most influential new media websites, including SaintPetersBlog.com, FloridaPolitics.com, ContextFlorida.com, and Sunburn, the morning read of what’s hot in Florida politics. SaintPetersBlog has for three years running been ranked by the Washington Post as the best state-based blog in Florida. In addition to his publishing efforts, Peter is a political consultant to several of the state’s largest governmental affairs and public relations firms. Peter lives in St. Petersburg with his wife, Michelle, and their daughter, Ella.