Spending in Florida’s Special Election Is Only the Beginning

Outside groups spent more than $9 million — and that’s just one House race.

TAMPA, FL - NOVEMBER 02: Democratic candidate for Florida Governor Alex Sink speaks to the crowd while waiting for final results at her election night party during midterm elections on November 2, 2010 in Tampa, Florida. Sink is up against Republican gubernatorial candidate Rick Scott to fill the slot currently held by Florida Gov. Charlie Crist who is running for U.S. Senate.  
National Journal
Scott Bland
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Scott Bland
March 10, 2014, 5:02 p.m.

As polling fin­ishes in Flor­ida’s 13th Con­gres­sion­al Dis­trict spe­cial elec­tion Tues­day, the flood of out­side-group spend­ing aimed at in­flu­en­cing those votes will also cease. But not for long.

Out­side groups have spent nearly $9 mil­lion to re­place the late Rep. Bill Young, ac­cord­ing to the Cen­ter for Re­spons­ive Polit­ics, a stag­ger­ing amount on a single House race. Demo­crat Alex Sink and Re­pub­lic­an Dav­id Jolly didn’t ex­actly play bit parts in this tightly matched con­test, but their ef­forts were dwarfed like few can­did­ates be­fore them.

While Flor­ida may be the only game in town right now, ever-grow­ing amounts of out­side money and pos­sibly few­er tar­get dis­tricts mean this scen­ario could re­play it­self across the coun­try later this year. Strategists and can­did­ates in Ari­zona, Cali­for­nia, Col­or­ado, West Vir­gin­ia, and else­where are nervously eye­ing Flor­ida as they see early trickles of spend­ing that, in the end, could rival the de­luge in Flor­ida’s 13th.

“I told someone the oth­er day, I feel a little like a ped­es­tri­an in a Godz­illa movie,” said An­drew Ro­man­off, a Demo­crat­ic chal­lenger in Col­or­ado.

Though out­side spend­ing now far out­paces can­did­ate fun­drais­ing, strategists in both parties say money raised by the can­did­ate is the best hedge against an out­side on­slaught. Even if al­lied groups can fight op­pos­ing groups to a draw with neg­at­ive TV ads, there’s no sub­sti­tute for can­did­ates be­ing able to in­tro­duce them­selves in their own words.

“That’s the one thing they can do bet­ter, and if they’re not … it’s really tough for the cam­paign to be suc­cess­ful,” said one GOP strategist.

That’s been a prob­lem for Re­pub­lic­ans in the Flor­ida spe­cial elec­tion, where Sink heav­ily out­raised Jolly, al­low­ing her to air a lot more pos­it­ive TV ads and bol­ster her high name re­cog­ni­tion. Re­pub­lic­an out­side spend­ing from groups like Amer­ic­an Cross­roads, Amer­ic­an Ac­tion Net­work, the U.S. Cham­ber of Com­merce, and the Na­tion­al Re­pub­lic­an Con­gres­sion­al Com­mit­tee helped even the score for Jolly and dent Sink’s im­age, but they couldn’t in­tro­duce him to voters like Sink did, air­ing ads fea­tur­ing banter between her­self and her fath­er.

In Col­or­ado’s 6th Dis­trict, in Den­ver’s sub­urbs, out­side groups have already star­ted spend­ing money. Both Re­pub­lic­an Rep. Mike Coff­man and Ro­man­off have already raised more than $2 mil­lion each, a tor­rid fun­drais­ing pace. And both can­did­ates have spent sig­ni­fic­ant time min­ing their com­munit­ies for sup­port, hop­ing to get bet­ter known be­fore they are de­mon­ized by op­pon­ents. The Den­ver Post re­cently high­lighted the time and en­ergy both can­did­ates were spend­ing on out­reach in the dis­trict’s Korean com­munity, even though it will ac­count for only a few thou­sand votes. It’s harder to ca­ri­ca­ture someone people already know.

“Mike’s got a real brand with voters here,” Coff­man cam­paign man­ager Tyler Sand­berg said. “They’re throw­ing a lot of junk against the wall, but it won’t work with him.”

An­oth­er tool in the kit: at­tack­ing the source of the out­side money it­self. Sen­ate Demo­crats are mak­ing a big play on this front right now, at­tack­ing the Koch broth­ers as a way of neut­ral­iz­ing the roughly $30 mil­lion that Amer­ic­ans for Prosper­ity has spent beat­ing up Demo­crat­ic can­did­ates.

“When I knocked doors this week­end … people say they’ve soured on polit­ics for these reas­ons,” Ro­man­off said. “They’ve seen cash and spe­cial-in­terest money wash over the sys­tem, and they feel their own voices get drowned out. I’m try­ing to lead by ex­ample, and so far it’s work­ing.”

Of course, it’s easi­er to say that’s work­ing be­fore the big spend­ing really starts. Like Sink and Jolly be­fore them, Ro­man­off and Coff­man are about to watch polit­ic­al spend­ing ex­plode in their dis­tricts. In­cum­bents like Demo­crats Ann Kirk­patrick of Ari­zona and Joe Gar­cia of Flor­ida and Re­pub­lic­ans Joe Heck of Nevada and Chris Gib­son of New York may join them.

The spe­cial elec­tion in Flor­ida may have been one of the most ex­pens­ive House races ever, but it’s about to have com­pany.

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