Republicans Dominate Florida Fundraising

Democrats Say Republicans Warn Donors about losing Business With State

By Thomas B. Edsall
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, October 31, 2002; Page A11

Florida's Republican Party, fortified by Gov. Jeb Bush's aggressive fundraising strategy, has collected three times more money from state contractors and state-regulated industries than has the Democratic Party, boosting Bush's reelection bid and other Republicans campaigns for Tuesday's elections.

The political parties are critical in Florida elections because candidates are restricted by tough fundraising and spending restrictions. The parties have far more leeway to collect cash, including large amounts of "soft money" that can be used for hard-hitting advocacy ads and other purposes.

Bush and his allies have worked to convert control of Florida's legislature and governorship into domination of traditional sources of soft money from lobbyists, industries financially dependent on the state and a huge network of developers. In the past, these industries and interests gave to both major political parties in Florida, where the electorate is split virtually 50-50.

The Republicans cash advantage has helped Bush, younger brother of the president, to pound home his message in the closing week of his reelection bid against Democrat Bill McBride. Most polls show the governor ahead by 3 to 4 percentage points.

Bush is hardly the first governor, Republican or Democrat, to dominate a state's political fundraising. But many Florida Democrats say his and his allies' tactics are unusually blunt. Republicans in the governor's administration and the legislature, they say, have warned prospective donors who have business with the state to make sure they give much more to Republicans than to Democrats. Democrats still receive money from organized labor and trial lawyers, but so far this year the state Republicans have raised $37.8 million compared with the Democrats' $11 million.

Martha Barnett, former president of the American Bar Association and a partner in McBride's law firm, Holland & Knight, said her efforts to raise money for McBride ran into repeated roadblocks. "Any number of people I have called . . . have told me they would like to, but they had been given a strong message that if their name shows up on any list, they should worry whether they will continue to get state work," she said.

Many Democratic lobbyists interviewed cited fears of retribution to their clients if they gave money to the Florida Democratic Party, but most declined to speak on the record.

"I'm not sure you could find any lobbyist that would be out of the closet in terms of supporting McBride," said one prominent Democratic lobbyist in Tallahassee. "I don't think anybody would be visible."

Another said: "Republican Party officials make you aware they know which of your clients gave to the Democratic Party."

"I hope they don't contribute a penny to the Democrats, but every party chair wishes that to be the case," said Florida Republican Chairman Al Cardenas. He said he has not pressured anyone not to give to the Democratic Party, but "as party chair, I hope we get it all, and they get none."

Prominent Florida lobbyist Ron Book, a former Democratic aide who now backs Bush, said the politics of money in the state capitol are governed by fairly straightforward rules: Anyone who backs the challenger to an incumbent administration "should expect nothing if the incumbent succeeds in getting re-elected. You would normally expect not to get tremendous responsiveness."

In 1999, state Sen. Tom Rossin (D), now McBride's running mate, publicly attacked what he called the "three-for-one plan. You must give three times as much to Republicans as to Democrats or risk having your issues not looked on favorably this session or next."

The pattern of corporate giving in Florida is striking:

  • The Alliance for Quality Nursing Home Care, a coalition of large nursing home operators, has given $300,000 to the Republicans and $50,000 to the Democrats
  • The Associated Industries Insurance Company gave the Republicans $185,000 and NOTHING to Democrats
  • AT&T gave the Republican Party $325,000 and Democrats $130,000
  • Disney Worldwide Services donated $210,000 to the Republicans, $75,000 to Democrats
  • BellSouth gave $310,000 to the Republicans, $60,000 to Democrats
  • Blue Cross-Blue Shield gave $125,000 to the Republicans, $15,000 to Democrats
  • The Florida Medical PAC gave $260,000 to the Republicans, $15,000 to Democrats.

Under state campaign finance law, the two gubernatorial campaigns will have roughly the same amount of money to spend, $6.3 million. The real spending differences are in party fundraising, which is largely unregulated. The state parties finance much of the television, polling and staff costs of gubernatorial campaigns, making the Republican's nearly $27 million edge a huge advantage.

In 1996, the year the Republican Party took over the state legislature, the two parties each raised $10 million. Since then, Democratic Party fundraising has stagnated, while the Republican take has grown by 278 percent.

Florida campaign finance law allows donors and candidates to use the state parties to get around restrictions on official campaigns. Those include a $500 cap on individual contributions and a $6.3 million limit on statewide spending per candidate.

Lawmakers exempted the parties from these restrictions, and the parties have become conduits for contributions of $100,000 and more. The money is used, even if indirectly, to promote the election of party nominees. In addition, the parties have evaded restrictions on what they can give to a specific candidate by running "three-pack" ads to take advantage of a provision allowing the parties to back slates of candidates.

A "three-pack" ad in the gubernatorial race will focus on Bush or McBride for most of the spot, and give scant notice to the two other candidates.