Charlie Crist, Florida’s former Republican governor, is campaigning to get his old job back -- this time as a Democrat -- and adding his fundraising muscle to a race poised to be the most expensive in state history.
Crist’s entry into the 2014 campaign opens the spigot of political spending for election consultants, pollsters and advertising agencies from both parties. Florida’s current Republican governor, Rick Scott, spent $73 million of his own money in a record-setting bid in 2010.
“It’s going to be a bonanza,” said Jay Goldfarb, who earned more than $18,000 this year through his Budget Printing Center in Riviera Beach, producing fundraising invitations for Scott. “I expect this to continue, very hot and heavy, right down to the wire.”
Florida, the fourth most-populous in the nation, is a swing state in presidential elections because it can go to either party. The larger states of California, Texas and New York vote more predictably Democratic or Republican.
That makes Florida the biggest tossup on the electoral map and a barometer of the nation’s political future. Deep-pocketed donors from across the U.S. plan to pour resources into its governor’s race, to lay the groundwork for the next presidential election.
“Florida is a microcosm of the nation, and people look at Florida because we have the evolving demographics, and we have the ability to swing the 2016 presidential campaign,” said Kevin Cate, a Democratic consultant who was the Florida spokesman for President Barack Obama’s 2008 campaign.
Cate, who’s advising Crist, owns a Tallahassee-based firm that provides media consulting and digital advertising for candidates. It’s one of hundreds of businesses that stand to benefit from an expensive governor’s race that will require direct-mail advertising, hotel stays, private flight services, flowers, food and more.
Scott, 60, a former health-care executive, listed his net worth at $218 million in 2010 and $83 million in a financial disclosure report this year. Crist, 57, a lawyer at Tampa-based law firm Morgan & Morgan, listed his net worth at about $441,500 just before leaving office in January 2011. He entered the race Nov. 1 and has yet to file a new disclosure.
Crist told a Florida Democratic Party conference last month that Scott plans to spend $100 million on his re-election. Crist has touted his own ties to prodigious fundraisers including Obama and former president Bill Clinton.
Scott’s team directed questions about the $100 million spending figure to Lenny Curry, chairman of the Republican Party of Florida. Curry said his party will spend what’s necessary to make sure voters know of Crist’s changing policy positions and the economic decline while he was governor from 2007 to 2011, when the state’s unemployment rate more tripled to 10.9 percent from 3.5 percent.
“We will be reminding the voting public that Charlie Crist is an opportunist,” he said in a telephone interview. “He has not demonstrated an ability to lead.”
Scott has said he doesn’t plan to spend his own money in next year’s race. His re-election committee has raised more than $18.7 million since 2010.
Between Crist and Scott, spending on the Florida election may rival California’s 2010 governor’s race, the most expensive in history, as billionaire Republican Meg Whitman, former chief executive officer of EBay Inc., spent $144 million of her own money in a bid that ultimately failed.
With Crist leading Scott 47 percent to 37 percent in a June poll by Hamden, Connecticut-based Quinnipiac University, political strategists say they expect heavy campaign spending. The survey of 1,176 registered voters had a margin of error of plus or minus 2.9 percentage points.
Scott won his 2010 race by less than 1 percentage point, beating Democrat Alex Sink.
Bolstering Florida spending this year is a new law that lifts the cap on political donations to candidates to $3,000 from $500. The measure took effect Nov. 1.
In the 2010 governor’s race, the biggest beneficiary of political spending was Multi Media Services Inc. The media-buying company in Alexandria, Virginia, got more than $20 million to help Scott blanket Florida with television ads. Scott was entering politics for the first time and relied on the ads to introduce himself to the state’s 19 million people.
Top political donors like the Florida Chamber of Commerce will spend millions of dollars to help Scott attack his opponent and highlight the state’s economic rebound, said Mark Wilson, the chamber president. Unemployment in Florida was down to 7.0 percent as of August, lower than the national rate of 7.3 percent that month.
“We expect that we’ll invest whatever it takes to make sure that the voters in Florida are very aware of the choice and the difference between the candidates,” Wilson said. “This is not just an election in Florida, this is very much a signal” to the rest of the country.
Phil Cox, executive director of the Republican Governors Association, said his group is prepared to match or beat the $10 million it spent in Florida in 2010.
“It’s an incredibly expensive state with 11 media markets, so it’s harder for outside groups to have an appreciable impact,” he said in a telephone interview. “You have to put real money on the table. And that’s what the RGA plans to do.”
In addition to protecting Scott, Republicans want to make sure Crist doesn’t win as a Democrat. A lifelong Republican who fled the party during a 2010 U.S. Senate race, Crist embodies a narrative that his former party is trying to combat.
He is releasing a tell-all book titled, “The Party’s Over: How the Extreme Right Hijacked the GOP and I Became a Democrat,” and has blasted Republicans for calcifying around positions unpopular with most Americans, such as calls to cut spending on Social Security and Medicare.
In a speech endorsing Obama at the Democratic National Convention last year, Crist said that Republicans are “beholden to the my-way-or-the-highway bullies, indebted to billionaires who bankroll their ads and allergic to the very idea of compromise.”
The state Republican Party, which spent almost $67 million during the 2010 elections, has already devoted resources to a flurry of daily ads and e-mails attacking Crist this year. An anti-Crist e-mail sent to reporters by state Republicans last month was titled: “Unfit to Govern: Part XVII.”
While Florida’s Democratic Party has traditionally trailed Republicans in fundraising, its eventual nominee will have help from national groups including the Democratic Governors Association, said Danny Kanner, a spokesman for the Washington-based group.
“We believe he’s deeply vulnerable,” Kanner said of Scott. “Because of that, it’s one of our top-targeted races.”
Kanner, who worked on Crist’s failed U.S. Senate campaign in 2010, said that in addition to being a talented fundraiser, Crist has “tens of millions of dollars” worth of name recognition. Smiling images of Crist adorn billboards throughout the state.
One sign, featuring Crist’s face and his law firm’s logo, bears a populist slogan that could double as the former governor’s campaign theme: “It’s about the people.”