'Outside' groups swamp Florida's airwaves in race for governor

Candidates routinely appear in ads paid for by third-party groups

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A screenshot from an ad attacking Charlie Crist paid for by Let's Get to Work.

Let's Get to Work/Youtube

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.

In the gubernatorial contest, an independent political committee is backing each of the two major party candidates. These groups are separate from the candidates’ respective campaigns, can accept unlimited contributions, yet can coordinate with the candidates. Crist described them as extensions of his and Scott’s campaigns.

“Charlie Crist for Florida is our political committee,” he told the Center. “And he has his, called Let’s Get to Work.”

Representatives of Scott’s campaign and Let’s Get to Work did not respond to requests for comment.

Let’s Get to Work has spent $10.8 million on television ads backing Scott since last November, the second-highest spender nationwide among non-candidate organizations active in state-level races.

The group was established in 2010 when Scott first ran for the seat. It received $12.8 million in contributions from a trust in Scott’s wife’s name that year. The group’s biggest donor this election cycle is the Republican Governors Association, which gave $9 million since January 2013, according to state filings.

The Washington, D.C.-based Republican Governors Association is a political powerhouse that spends tens of millions of dollars on governors’ races nationwide. So far it has bought ads in 13 states this cycle.

The biggest donors to the group so far this cycle are conservative billionaire brothers Charles and David Koch, Las Vegas casino magnate Sheldon Adelson and hedge fund manager Paul Singer, according to IRS filings.

The Republican Governors Association also gave $225,000 to the Republican Party of Florida in December, and the party has given nearly $3.5 million to Scott’s campaign since December.

Four of Let’s Get to Work’s 13 different ads, including the one described above, feature cameos by Scott. These ads alone cost the committee an estimated $3.4 million to air, according to the Kantar Media/CMAG data, more than has been spent in at least half of the nation’s gubernatorial races this cycle. Scott’s campaign, on the other hand, has only spent about $176,000 on TV ads.

Using the political committee to pay for TV ads — usually a campaign’s biggest expense — makes sense, Crist said, given that campaigns face $3,000-per-election contribution limits and donations to political committees are unlimited.

As long as political committees don’t use words such as “vote for” or “vote against” in their ads, the candidates can coordinate with the groups, said Ron Meyer, a Florida elections attorney who is representing several Democratic candidates this cycle, though none involved in the governor’s race.

Like his opponent, Crist is also taking advantage of Florida’s flexible laws, though in a slightly different way.

The political committee backing Crist has not bought any TV ads, and instead has given at least $9.7 million of the $17.7 million it has raised to the Florida Democratic Party, according to state filings. The party, in turn, is coordinating with Crist, a former Republican.

One ad, which cost the party an estimated $1.3 million to air, opens with a shot of Crist.

“Almost every day people say to me, ‘Charlie, I’m working hard, but I’m stressed out,’” he says.

Though illegal in federal races, this coordinated effort is OK in Florida as long as the party names at least two other candidates it supports within the ad, Meyer said. This particular ad features four small photos of Crist and three other Democratic candidates at the end amid the normal disclaimer text.

Parties are free from contribution limits, which means candidates can conserve their own campaign funds when parties pay for ads.

“In my humble opinion, the party is the perfect vehicle for raising and spending money,” said Mark Herron, a Florida elections attorney representing Crist’s campaign. The only downside is that money given to a party can’t be earmarked for a specific candidate the way money given to a political committee can, he said.

Crist’s campaign has spent roughly $968,000 airing TV ads, compared with the roughly $8.9 million the state’s Democratic Party has spent to benefit his candidacy.

Those ads from the Florida Democratic Party, plus the roughly $9.8 million worth of ads sponsored by the Republican Party of Florida, account for roughly 59 percent of the television spending in the governor’s race.

Another oddity of Florida’s laws is that Crist can also raise money for the political committee Charlie Crist for Florida, and Scott can raise money for Let’s Get to Work.

Better yet, Scott can contribute his family's considerable wealth directly to Let's Get to Work, as his wife has done through her trust in the past. Scott can give unlimited amounts to his own campaign committee, but if Ann Scott tried to give directly to her husband’s campaign committee, she would be limited to the standard $3,000 limit per election per donor. State records show she has not given any money to Scott’s actual campaign.

Both candidates can also raise cash for their respective parties.

Despite the various ways candidates can avoid dipping into their campaign reserves, candidates’ official campaigns still have a role in Florida’s elections, Herron said.

“You don’t want to have zero campaign, everything going through the party,” he said, pointing to expenses like staff salaries and travel that the campaign has to cover.

Though the new law makes spending lots of money to influence elections easier, the fact that the state’s airwaves are filled with a seemingly endless supply of ads paid for by groups other than the candidates’ campaigns is nothing new for Florida.

“For all intents and purposes, there is unlimited spending on political races in Florida and almost unlimited sourcing of those contributions, and this has been going on for years,” Smith said. “It’s the same old funders, same sources, going through different vehicles.”

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