TALLAHASSEE — On May 24, Los Angeles was good to Charlie Crist’s gubernatorial campaign.
On that day, the former Republican governor and his committees picked up a quick $24,000 in campaign contributions, including $6,000 from legendary filmmaker Steven Spielberg. Crist has snagged more than $100,000 from the Golden State.
In November, Gov. Rick Scott held a campaign fundraiser at the office of Washington-based lobbying firm RBG Group. One of its founding partners is Haley Barbour, a former Louisiana governor and longtime rainmaker in national Republican politics.
As the campaigns travel the state giving stump speeches laced with regionalized talking points to appeal to whatever groups they are in front of, both are riding a growing wave of campaign cash from donors who live outside the Sunshine State.
The out-of-state contributions have helped both sides build the campaign framework needed in the homestretch of what’s expected to be one of the midterm’s hottest governor races.
The campaigns and committees aligned with them so far have brought in $15 million from out-of-state donors, with out-of-state groups pledging millions more.
To put that in perspective, through this point in 2010, Scott, his top Republican challenger, Bill McCollum, and Democratic nominee Alex Sink had brought in $7 million combined from non-Florida donors. In fact, Sink’s 2010 campaign and an affiliated committee raised a total of $18 million. At the time, it was a record for a Democratic candidate for governor.
Out of the total amount of contributions, 17 percent of the money raised by the two 2014 candidates has come from out-of-state donors. That’s up from 12 percent that the top three 2010 candidates brought in from non-Florida donors.
The Washington-based Republican Governors Association has spent $6 million in Florida. Its counterpart organization, the Democratic Governors Association, has spent $2.2 million in Florida, with $1.5 million going directly to Crist. Both will no doubt spend millions more.
In addition, San Francisco-based NextGen Climate, a group founded by environmentalist billionaire Tom Steyer, has pledged to spend up to $10 million to defeat Scott. The group has spent $1.7 million so far in Florida but is not giving directly to Crist’s campaign. Much of the money is going to political committees that can accept unlimited contributions. Contributions given directly to statewide candidates are capped at $3,000.
Because Florida is a large swing state with a huge footprint on presidential politics, its governor race is always watched nationally. This year, though, Crist offers GOP political operatives added motivation.
Republicans nationally would detest seeing a candidate who ditched their party plant his flag in the capital of the nation’s soon-to-be third largest state. For many, that dynamic makes the race personal.
Also upping the stakes is that most polls have the race at a statistical dead heat.
“Everything revolves around the fundamental competitive nature of the race. … That fact alone motivates the coalitions of donors on each side,” said Brecht Heuchan, a longtime GOP consultant who started Contribution Link, a firm that crunches political data, including campaign finance numbers.
“The flip side of the coin is a close loss is even tougher to swallow than a blowout, and donors feel the same way,” said Heuchan, whose firm is helping Scott.
Both campaigns face minor intraparty challenges headed into Tuesday’s primary. They know the real fight is yet to come.
Greg Blair, a spokesman for the Scott campaign, said the spike in out-of-state money can be attributed to one person: President Barack Obama.
“Charlie Crist can’t talk about his record and has failed to outline any vision, … so President Obama has called in the cavalry from Washington and California to bail out Charlie’s campaign,” he said.
Crist’s finance director is Jessica Clark, who was Obama’s top Florida fundraiser. Many of Obama’s top donors, including those outside of Florida, have written large checks to the committee aligned with Crist’s campaign.
Crist’s campaign continues to stress its high number of small-dollar donors. It has more than 44,000 total contributors, compared with Scott’s 7,360.
“We’ve received donations from tens of thousands of Americans, and the vast majority of those donations are under $100,” said Brendan Gilfillan, a Crist spokesman. “Unlike Rick Scott, Charlie doesn’t focus on who’s donating when he makes decisions.”
New technologies that make a political contribution one click away also have made it easier to contribute from anywhere in the country. This dynamic, in part, is driving the flood of fundraising emails that fill the inboxes of people even remotely interested in politics.
“Less than 36 hours to go,” reads a Crist campaign email, which includes a link to contribute. It was a reference to the time left to contribute before the preprimary deadline.