TAMPA — Gov. Rick Scott has upped the financial stakes in what was already Florida’s most expensive political campaign ever by contributing $12.8 million of his own money toward his re-election, a move he said early on he wouldn’t have to make.
Although Florida’s loophole-ridden election finance laws mean no one will ever know exactly how much the race cost, total spending by both sides almost certainly will exceed $150 million, including Scott’s last-minute contribution, according to a Tampa Tribune analysis of published campaign finance reports.
Scott and Republicans backing him have a spending advantage of roughly 2-1 over his Democratic challenger, former Gov. Charlie Crist — approximately $96 million to Crist’s $49 million.
Those figures omit certain kinds of spending by both sides that are difficult to track, including spending on radio and digital advertising and voter turnout efforts by the two state political parties and outside political groups. Those costs, several million on each side, would boost the totals past $100 million for Scott and $50 million for Crist.
The figures include about $114 million spent on television advertising alone — $73.5 million by Scott and his Republican allies, and $38.9 million by Crist and his Democratic allies, including NextGen Climate, the environmental group funded by California billionaire Tom Steyer.
The figures on television spending come from Democratic Party sources who gleaned them from public records broadcasters are required to keep on political ad sales. The state Republican Party wouldn’t confirm the figures or provide any spending data, but doesn’t dispute them.
Despite Scott’s 2-1 spending advantage, which has made this the most expensive governor’s race in the country this year, the race appears to be tied.
In the last three weeks, two polls have shown Crist ahead and three have shown Scott ahead, in all cases by less than the error margin, and two have shown ties.
“This is a one-point race. It’s razor-tight,” said Tom Eldon, whose Tampa-based, Democratic-oriented SEA Polling firm did a poll showing a Scott lead.
Scott’s personal contributions, $6.4 million each given by his wife and his blind trust to the Republican Party of Florida, fueled a last-minute advertising buy of more than $13.2 million for the final eight days of the race, a spree several times the size usually considered a saturation buy in the state’s 10 media markets.
Crist and Democratic allies added $5.3 million worth of TV ads for the last week.
Scott’s contribution, listed on a state Republican Party financial report filed late Friday night. capped a huge fundraising period in which the party reported collecting $65.28 million from Aug. 22-Oct. 30.
Other major contributors included business magnate and conservative political activist David Koch, $250,000; Las Vegas gambling magnate Sheldon Adelson, $1.5 million; Jupiter investor Lawrence DeGeorge, $500,000; six-figure contributions from TECO, Duke Power and Florida Power & Light; more than $1 million from the Florida Chamber of Commerce; and $562,000 from U.S. Sugar, bringing its total contribution to the party in this election cycle to more than $1.7 million.
Democrats reported raising $31.35 million in the final period. Large contributions included $300,000 from the state trial lawyers’ PAC; $95,000 from the Morgan & Morgan “for the people” law firm, Crist’s employer; $606,500 from Boca Raton lawyer and media entrepreneur Laurie Silvers; $150,000 from the American Federation of Teachers; and $1.1 million from the Houston-based Mostyn law firm.
Scott, who’s wealthy from his career as head of the former Columbia/HCA chain of hospitals, listed a net worth of $133 million for 2013 on a recent financial disclosure report.
Democrats questioned whether it was legal for Scott to use his blind trust, which is supposed to manage his assets without his control or knowledge, to make the contributions.
Referring to Columbia/HCA’s history of convictions for Medicare fraud while Scott ran the firm, the Crist campaign said, “Money that came from his time as CEO of a company that stole from Floridians is now being used to inundate Floridians with more ads than they’ve ever seen.”
Asked for a response, Scott campaign spokesman Greg Blair replied via email, “We’re still waiting to hear an apology from Charlie Crist for taking taxpayer dollars to fund his negative campaign,” an apparent reference to Crist’s use of public financing money.
Scott acknowledged two weeks ago that he would be spending some of his own fortune on his campaign, after saying early in the race that he didn’t want to and thought he wouldn’t need to. Scott called it an “investment,” and said it was to counter pro-Crist spending by NextGen Climate, the environmental group.
NextGen spent about $16.1 million in the race, about half of it on television advertising, a spokeswoman said.
Organizations including National Rifle Association and Americans for Prosperity, the conservative political committee funded by David and Charles Koch, have spent money on TV and other activities benefitting Scott.
Scott began his political career in 2009 by spending millions of his own money on television ads opposing the Affordable Care Act, or “Obamacare.” In 2010, he spent some $75 million of his own money on his race for governor.
Both Crist and Scott have used independent political committees and their state parties as vehicles for advertising and other campaign spending, as well as their own campaign organizations.
The involvement of the parties, which spend money on other candidates and on activities to benefit their entire slates, makes it difficult to pin down precise spending on any one race.
Under Florida law, the parties can accept contributions of unlimited size, unlike the candidates’ campaign organizations, and can buy TV advertising with the same discount available to candidates.
Technically, they can’t run ads for a candidates. But under state law, mentioning at least two other candidates makes an ad a “party building” ad, not a candidate ad. So both parties are running “3-pack ads” for their candidates for governor, in which photos and names of two other candidates flash briefly on the screen at the end.
“You’re never going to know exactly how much was spent on the race because of the 3-packs, and because it’s difficult to pin down the outside spending,” said veteran Democratic political strategist Screven Watson. “It’s a loophole you can drive a truck through.”
As long as it’s in effect, he said, “You’ll never have the kind of disclosure that people would like. It’s set up for deception and making it hard to follow the money.”