News Column

GOP Finds Big Spenders in Legislative Battles

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Republicans and their interest-group allies are building a monumental cash advantage this election season despite Democratic hopes that redrawn districts could help restore at least some respectability in the GOP-dominated Florida Legislature.

Building toward a heated and high-priced Aug. 14 primary, GOP leaders are channeling millions of dollars from corporate givers such as Walt Disney Co. and its affiliated companies, Orlando-based Florida Association of Realtors and Lakeland-based Publix Super Markets to finance primary fights that could help settle internal leadership fights or subtly shift alliances in the Senate.

The GOP, which controls the agenda in Tallahassee and draws bigger checks from interests with business in the Capitol, is hardly alone in the cash hunt.

Out of the top 25 biggest political committees used to steer unlimited sums of money into Florida races, those controlled by unions, trial lawyers, teachers and Democratic lawmakers have spent $9.76 million so far this election season, according to data filed late Friday.

But the political funds of Republican legislators and traditionally GOP-leaning groups such as the Florida Chamber of Commerce, Realtors and the Florida Medical Association make up 20 of those 25 biggest spenders and have poured in $35.9 million so far.

Even in individual races, Republicans -- who control the agenda in Tallahassee and thus command outsized financial support from interests with business in the Capitol -- are dominating the race for cash.

In the Senate District 8 contest, Democratic Volusia County Chairman Frank Bruno outraised Rep. Dorothy Hukill, R-Port Orange, over the two-week reporting window from July 7-20, collecting $16,475 compared to Hukill's $9,700.

But Hukill has an overall funding edge of $287,711 to Bruno's $223,548 raised -- a total cash haul that ranks fourth among all Senate candidates so far.

In another local contest for a newly drawn Hispanic Senate District 14 seat in Orange and Osceola counties, Democratic Rep. Darren Soto reported Friday raising $15,550, compared to just $1,600 raised by Republican trial-lawyer William McBride.

But McBride has made the race competitive on paper thanks to a $205,000 self-loan he gave to the campaign last month. The loan gives him a total of $249,000 raised compared to Soto's $109,936 total. The district is heavily Hispanic and Democratic-leaning, but McBride is a recognizable face in the community.

"It's not really surprising since it's a tough seat for him to win," Soto said of McBride's self-funding. "However his self-funding keeps the match very competitive."

One local Democrat state party officials have high hopes for is House District 30 candidate Karen Castor Dentel, who raised $7,580 for the two weeks and $61,062 in total.

But to put the financial advantage in perspective, her Republican opponent for the newly drawn seat in Winter Park and Maitland -- Rep. Scott Plakon, R-Longwood -- raised just $5,360 for the same period, but has collected a total of $176,042.

Victoria Siplin, wife of termed-out Orlando Sen. Gary Siplin, raised $11,295 for the two-week period, giving her $104,369 raised in her Democratic Senate District 12 primary. Her opponent, Rep. Geraldine Thompson, D-Orlando, raised $8,270 for the two weeks and $103,527 total. The winner of their Aug. 14 primary takes the seat.

And money from Disney is continuing to flow into many of the highest-profile legislative races this summer. The company has given a total of $1.4 million so far -- including the costs of free hotel rooms, meeting space, food and entertainment provided to candidates -- to fund political causes this election cycle, the vast majority of it steered to Republicans.

Many of those dollars are finding their way into GOP primaries.

The company gave $40,000 on July 20 to Florida Forward, a committee controlled by future House Speaker Richard Corcoran, R-Port Richey, who is steering those dollars into ads helping fund two Miami and Tampa-area House races.

Disney gave another $40,000 to Citizens for an Enterprising Economy, a committee controlled by Rep. Chris Dorworth, a Lake Mary Republican slated to lead the House in 2014. He steered $20,000 of it to help an old friend, Eric Lasso, in his Orange County Commission District 3 race.

And Disney is helping to bankroll TV ads for state Rep. Rachel Burgin in her bitter primary fight with past Senate President Tom Lee for a Tampa-area Senate seat, records show.

Disney wrote a $30,000 check on July 12 to Floridians for Strong Leadership, a fundraising committee controlled by state Sen. Anitere Flores, a Miami Republican.

A day later, Flores' committee cut a $30,000 check to Accountable Florida, another political fund used to accept big checks and buy ads. One week after that, Accountable Florida paid $17,633 to Orlando-based Sloane MacKenzie Public Affairs to create and secure air time for a TV ad touting Burgin.

"It was an ad that highlighted Rachel's conservative actions in the House," said Timothy Buckley, who owns Sloane MacKenzie. The spot is airing on Tampa cable stations.

Records show Accountable Florida was created less than a month ago, and the money it got from Flores' committee is the only contribution it received through July 20. The Sloane MacKenzie ad buy was one of only two expenditures it lists, the other being a $25 wire-transfer fee.

Meanwhile Flores' fundraising committee has raised $54,500 so far this year. More than half of that came from Disney's $30,000 donation.

Burgin, R-Tampa, is in a nasty primary battle with Lee, R-Brandon, who served as Senate president from 2004 to 2006. He was best known for championing ethics reforms, including a law that forces lobbyists to disclose details about their income.

The Senate's current leadership -- including incoming President Don Gaetz, R-Niceville, and his expected successor Sen. Andy Gardiner, R-Orlando -- all back Lee. Since January, the two men have raised more than $3 million to support their preferred GOP primary candidates in Jacksonville and Tampa races through their Florida Conservative Majority fund.

But many lobbyists and corporate interests such as Disney are lining up behind Burgin, who has accused Lee of supporting expanded gambling.

The race has turned into one of Florida's ugliest contests. Another third-party group set up by Tallahassee lobbyists called the American People Committee recently paid for a mailer that attacks Lee by claiming he "abandoned his marriage for a gambling lobbyist" in his first Senate term. The attack drew a rare public rebuke from Republican Party of Florida Chairman Lenny Curry and enraged Gaetz.

"Rachel Burgin is a very nice person but sometimes people get desperate when it looks like they're losing," Gaetz said.

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