The race to occupy the Florida governor’s mansion is among the most expensive state-level contests in the country this year, with roughly $31.8 million spent through September 8 on 64,000 television ads.
But the campaign committees of incumbent Republican Gov. Rick Scott and Democratic challenger and former Gov. Charlie Crist are responsible for less than 4 percent of that spending. That’s the lowest rate of candidate participation in any governor’s race in the country, according to a Center for Public Integrity analysis of data from media tracking service Kantar Media/CMAG.
The phenomenon stems in part from a new campaign finance law that the Florida Legislature passed last year. The change made it easier for independent political committees to raise unlimited sums of money. The committees can then use that money to coordinate directly with candidates on advertising or other spending. Few, if any, other states have such a liberal standard for allowing such coordinated efforts.
As a result, candidates’ actual campaign committees, which face strict contribution limits, have become virtually irrelevant — especially in Scott’s case.
For example, one ad begins with a shot of Scott reading a newspaper.
“You might have noticed the news media is not always my friend, but they aren’t the critics I worry about,” Scott says. He lowers the newspaper to reveal his grandson on his lap. At the end of the ad, Scott’s grandson says Scott’s campaign slogan — “Let’s get to work, Grandpa” — and Scott laughs. “That’s my line,” Scott says.
Though it’s clear that Scott helped produce the ad by, at the very least, sitting and talking before a camera, Scott’s campaign didn’t pay for it. The Let’s Get to Work political committee did.
In federal and most state elections, this level of coordination between a candidate and a group spending independently to support that candidate would be illegal. Less obviously coordinated efforts prompted a criminal probe of Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker’s 2012 recall election campaign, for example. Yet in Florida, such coordination is not only legal, but the norm.
“The idea that there are firewalls between a candidate campaign and the outside entities is a fiction,” said Dan Smith, a political science professor at the University of Florida.
Without firewalls, though, limits on how much money candidates can raise and spend become meaningless. Political contests become competitions for who has access to more cash.