Florida’s governor’s race: mean and costly

Article Courtesy of The Miami Herald
By Marc Caputo and Steve Bousquet
Published May 29, 2014

Gov. Rick Scott is already approaching $10 million in spending on TV ads, while likely Democratic challenger Charlie Crist has yet to spend a dime on TV.

TALLAHASSEE -- Gov. Rick Scott is rewriting Florida’s campaign playbook by writing massive checks.

Charlie Crist, on his third political affiliation in four years, is doing his own rewrite through political reinvention.

Less than six months from Election Day, the two men are on a collision course in what promises to be the costliest and meanest governor’s race in the nation. 

It’s not even June and Scott is already approaching $10 million in spending on TV ads aired or bought since mid-March — an unheard-of sum so early in a campaign, and even more shocking considering Scott is the incumbent. In previous campaigns, this level of spending might be dropped around Labor Day.

Crist has yet to spend a dime on TV, but he reaps the benefits of high name recognition nurtured in five statewide campaigns between 1998 and 2010. He’s also maintaining a grueling schedule to attract free TV and newspaper coverage to counteract Scott’s financial edge.

“Campaigns start earlier and earlier and not just in Florida,” said Stuart Stevens, a Republican political consultant who worked for Mitt Romney in 2012 and Crist in 2010 when Crist was running for the U.S. Senate as a Republican. “Campaigns are continual now. They’re covered like sports with high-intensity channels devoted to this.”

The money race

Whoever wins the Florida Governor’s Mansion in November will control the nation’s largest swing state heading into the 2016 elections. 

National groups are pitching in early, with the Republican Governors Association contributing more than $2.5 million to Scott — more than any other candidate for governor. The Democratic Governors Association recently gave Crist $500,000, while the liberal NextGen Climate Action Super PAC has signaled its intention to help Crist.

Scott is spending so much now because he needs to: Voters generally don’t favor him.

At this point in the 2010 election, Scott dropped $6 million on ads because the then-political newcomer was a complete unknown and needed to familiarize himself with voters during a GOP primary.

Scott went on to win and, since taking office in 2011, has raised about $36 million and spent $15 million through various political committees. That doesn’t include the untold millions he has helped raise for the Republican Party of Florida, which has given Scott about $1 million in in-kind support by way of staffing and phone-banking help.

In all, Scott wants to spend at least $100 million. So far, he already has spent more than Attorney General Pam Bondi and Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam spent combined getting elected in 2010.

The money isn’t coming out of Scott’s own pocket like it did in 2010, when Scott ran as the Tallahassee outsider. Today, the incumbent governor gets about 12 percent of his contributions from those with Tallahassee addresses — more than any other donors from any other city, an examination of campaign contributions shows. 

About 16 percent of his support comes from people affiliated with real estate and construction; 15 percent from the healthcare industry.

Crist, who announced his candidacy a year before Election Day Nov. 4, has raised more than $10.1 million and spent $1.4 million. A lawyer, Crist receives outsized support from the legal industry, which supplies 41 percent of his contributions.

Crist has raised the most money from those with Coral Gables and Tampa addresses, about 9 percent each.

The ground war

Scott has a jump on Crist in building a campaign team and what’s known as a field organization.

Scott has more full-time staffers, field offices and consultants, a broad array of social media sites, big-name surrogates such as New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and the deep-pocketed backing of the Republican Party.

Scott’s campaign is run largely by young out-of-state operatives who have never run a statewide race in Florida. The metric-minded campaign operatives are proud of their accomplishments to date, including launching seven websites, two of which the Democrats once owned but didn’t bother to renew, FloridaDems.com and CutandRunCrist.com.

Scott has 24 field offices scattered across the state; Crist has three.

At Crist’s last field office opening, in Little Havana last weekend, Republican Hispanic demonstrators disrupted a Crist speech as they protested his call for more normalized relations with Cuba.

“There’s going to be a lot of noise,” Crist’s campaign manager Omar Khan said amid the Republicans chanting “shame on you!”

“And the biggest amount of noise — I wish this [the shouts of Republicans] was going to be our biggest problem. It’s not,” Khan said. “It’s going to be $100 million they spend on us.”

Crist’s campaign is stocked with Obama campaign hands and supporters, just as Scott’s is filled with Romney alums. In Florida in 2012, Obama beat Romney by less than a percentage point.

Style differences

Scott enjoys the benefits of incumbency, including a bully pulpit that should enable him to dominate the earned media news cycle most of the time. But Crist is savvier at attracting media attention, as he did recently when the Florida Council of 100 abruptly uninvited him as a guest speaker at a meeting in Orlando.

Even before hopping in the race, Crist looked like the best candidate to upend the political wisdom that a party-switcher has no chance. Poll after poll generally shows people like Crist more than they like Scott.

And the polls show Crist slightly ahead. A Herald/Times analysis of the last eight publicly released polls weighted to reflect a likely mid-term electorate show Crist with a lead of .6 to 2 percentage points.

The lead was larger until Scott started spending. But Scott’s ability to continue closing the gap on Crist could become more difficult in great part because most of the gains have come among voters who should have been the incumbent governor’s base: Republicans.

In effect, Scott has been running against Crist as if Crist were his primary opponent. That imaginary primary is now ending, and Scott needs to find away to strip away enough independents from the centrist Crist and help depress Democratic turnout.

Crist can’t afford to answer Scott’s ads with his own. Not yet. And right now, the fact that Crist holds a nominal lead bears witness to his popularity and Scott’s lack of it.

“I called him a long time ago and said, 'You’re the only one who’s capable of not being defeated by $100 million,’ ” said Dan Gelber, a former Miami Beach legislator and one of Crist’s closest advisers. “He has such a strong identity with voters that he can resist a paid media campaign.” 

Crist won’t go up on air until he has to, and that could mean he’ll hold out until July. Crist also must first dispatch little-known former state Sen. Nan Rich in the Democratic primary.

Crist’s advertising buy will reveal which areas of the state he feels most vulnerable to his Republican opponent.

Tampa Bay, Crist’s home base, is crucial. Scott has spent more ad money there — 29 percent — than anywhere else in the state. Scott’s second-biggest area for media buys: Orlando, a swing media market that experts say could tip the election. 

Scott’s spending hasn’t just helped win back the GOP rank and file. It has quieted the concerns of the Republican elite.

A year ago, Senate President Don Gaetz, R-Niceville, said aloud what many Republicans were saying privately: that Scott faced an “uphill battle” to win a second term and that many GOP candidates were worried about having him as their standard-bearer.

But Gaetz said Scott is doing better traveling the state and



Crist’s Campaign Team

Kevin Cate

With an aw-shucks demeanor and a hearty disdain for Gov. Rick Scott’s agenda, this 30-year-old media adviser is a multimedia whiz promoting a candidate still mastering email. Cate owns a Tallahassee public relations firm advising nonprofits and corporate clients. He was a spokesman for Barack Obama’s 2008 presidential campaign in Florida and press secretary to Chief Financial Officer Alex Sink. He’s relentless about tipping reporters to what he sees as the latest boneheaded move by Scott or Republicans. He learned his way around the media at an early age: His father is Keith Cate, a longtime Tampa TV news anchor.

Dan Gelber

A former state senator and House minority leader from Miami Beach, Gelber, 53, was the Democratic nominee for attorney general in 2012 and lost to Pam Bondi. That experience taught him the perils of running statewide and made him appreciate all the more Crist’s most valuable political assets: likability and universal name recognition. A lawyer who once worked as counsel to a U.S. Senate committee, Gelber is viewed as the brains of the Crist outfit and a possible running mate. As a legislator, he was respected by Republicans for his debating skills, and he and Crist have a history: Gelber persuaded Crist to issue the order extending early voting in 2008 to relieve long lines at the polls.

Omar Khan

The gravelly voice that makes him sound like a Scorsese film character betrays his New York roots, but this University of South Florida graduate and two-time Obama campaign hand knows the mechanics of campaigning in Florida better than most longtime state Democrats. Khan, 32, also has a gut feeling for Florida’s political sensibilities and a disarmingly self-deprecating sense of humor. 

David Rancourt

He’s a red Republican inside Crist’s blue tent. Rancourt, 48, was a Republican Party operative and trusted adviser to Gov. Jeb Bush who helped grow Southern Strategy Group into one of the strongest lobbying firms in the Southeast. A lifelong Republican who could not penetrate the Scott inner circle and a longtime friend of Crist’s, Rancourt wrote a $50,000 check to help get Crist’s campaign off the ground. If Crist wins, Rancourt would become one of Tallahassee’s most sought-after lobbyists.

Steve Schale

A senior consultant to Crist, he already was a rising star among political consultants in 2008 when he managed the Florida campaign victory that helped put Obama into the White House. With his skills in high demand, Schale surprisingly did not move to D.C., but became a lobbyist for AT&T, Disney and hospitals. Schale, 39, said awful things about Crist when he was a Republican that Crist is willing to overlook because Schale knows how to get Democrats elected in Florida. He also can do the math in statewide races and saw early on that Crist’s 2010 independent U.S. Senate candidacy wasn’t going to succeed.

Scott’s Campaign Team

Curt Anderson

An architect of Scott’s much-maligned but successful TV ad strategy, Anderson is a partner in OnMessage Inc., a media firm that is trying to soften Scott’s image to attract turned-off voters. A Maryland resident, Anderson has worked for Texas Gov. Rick Perry, Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal and presidential candidate Herman Cain. Anderson, 52, also has performed damage control for Scott. When former top fundraiser Mike Fernandez’s leaked emails exposed his over-the-top criticism of Scott’s campaign, including his TV ads, Anderson dismissed Fernandez as a “renegade donor” in a Politico interview.

Tony Fabrizio

After playing a vital behind-the-scenes role as pollster and strategist in Scott’s from-out-of-nowhere 2010 victory, Fabrizio is advising Scott again, but this time in a long-view strategic role following reported clashes with Scott’s chief of staff, Adam Hollingsworth. A South Florida pollster with a national profile, Fabrizio, 54, has said he looks forward to helping Scott “shock” the political world again by defeating Charlie Crist. His polling firm has received $1.1 million from Scott’s political committee since 2010.

Adam Hollingsworth

Scott’s 45-year-old chief of staff is a bridge between Scott’s governing and campaigning worlds, but he has no formal campaign role. He has strong political ties to his native Jacksonville and acts as the state’s chief operating officer, guiding all aspects of Scott’s administration. He helped orchestrate Jennifer Carroll’s ouster as lieutenant governor, survived an embarrassing résumé-padding episode and is said to have helped orchestrate the cancellation of a speech by Crist to the Florida Council of 100. Like any chief of staff, he has many critics, but he has been around longer than either of his predecessors.

Meredith O’Rourke

An effective fundraiser with a wide network of connections to donors, she’s the unseen and well-paid mastermind of “Let’s Get to Work,” Scott’s political committee and underpinning of his candidacy. A 42-year-old Palm Beach County native, O’Rourke raised $19 million for Crist’s 2006 campaign as a Republican, and she will raise far more than that for Scott in 2014. Her consulting firm, Forward Strategies, has already been paid $1.7 million by Let’s Get to Work, and she has earned another $736,000 from the Republican Party of Florida.

Melissa Sellers

A University of Texas journalism graduate, she made politics her career after a 2003 internship in George W. Bush’s White House. She was a press aide to Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal and worked in the press office at the 2012 Republican National Convention in Tampa when Scott hired her to sharpen his messaging. She soon had Scott personally showing up at companies to tout job-creation numbers. Fiercely loyal to Scott, she has lived in Florida less than two years and, at 31, is one of the youngest people to manage a campaign for governor in Florida.

hat his 2014 priority of cutting auto tag fees by about $25 a vehicle will resonate with voters.


“There’s more enthusiasm for him than there has been,” said Gaetz, whose Panhandle district is one of the most conservative in Florida. “My belief is, he’s turned the corner. I now think he’s above water.”