Bringing a knife to a gunfight

Republicans outspent Democrats 3-to-1 in Tampa Bay legislative races

Every few days in the run-up to the Nov. 7 election, I got a telephone call from Candice Jovan. A Democrat, she was running for a seat in the Florida House of Representatives from mid-Pinellas County.

She was begging for any coverage about her largely unremarkable race. Free newspaper stories ("earned media" in the lexicon) were about the only form of communications she could afford.

Jovan was a first-time candidate, a Democracy for America organizer and community activist with a resume of civic involvement. But her campaign failed to catch fire with key political players, especially the St. Petersburg Times, which endorsed her Republican opponent despite her liberal platform, one that seemed more in line with the Times' own beliefs (fair and living wage, affordable and accessible health care for everyone). The newspaper editorial dismissed her in one line: "She has no record of public service and little knowledge of the issues facing legislators."

More importantly, Jovan failed to connect with the one group that decides many elections: the money men.

Jovan raised and spent a little bit more than $14,000. Her opponent, former Clearwater City Commissioner Ed Hooper, spent more than $153,000, outgunning Jovan by a 13-to-1 margin. And that doesn't even count any Republican Party and third-party expenditures in the race to support Hooper. He won 55 percent to 45 percent in a district where Republicans outnumber Democrats by only 3 percentage points.

That kind of financial imbalance was typical of legislative races this year, according to a CL analysis of state elections records.

Of the 17 legislative contests in Pinellas and Hillsborough counties that were fought between the two major parties, the candidate who raised the most money won 15. Republicans outraised and outspent their Democratic opponents in 13 of the 17 races. They won all but two of the campaigns where they held the financial edge, losing to Democrats Charlie Justice in a Florida Senate race and Bill Heller in a House district centered in St. Petersburg.

On average, Republicans outspent Democrats by a 3-to-1 margin this year in Tampa Bay. In some races, where there was only token opposition from the Democrats, the disparity was staggering: Republican first-timer Will Weatherford outspent his opponent 575-to-1 to win a north Hillsborough/Pasco seat in the Florida House.

Typically, the margin was less than that but still devastating. Here are two prime examples:

In House 48, centered on Tarpon Springs, the word among Republican consultants and at Democratic Party headquarters just before the election was that Democratic contender Carl Zimmerman was very close in his attempt to beat Republican Peter Nehr in a heavily Republican district. Republican supporters — including WellCare, Big Sugar, Disney, Big Citrus, telecoms, liquor and gambling — dumped a bunch of money in the race in the last two weeks. That push gave Nehr an 8-to-1 financial advantage, allowed him to do some last-minute direct mail and radio ads, and resulted in him eking out a victory, 52 percent to 48 percent.

In the second case, conservative Democrat Stephen Gorham tried to upset east Hillsborough icon Ronda Storms in a Florida Senate race. Both candidates benefited from third-party expenditures in one of the Bay area's nastiest media campaigns. But Storms held the edge in her own campaign account, outspending Gorham by a 6-to-1 margin.

There are several possible explanations for these financial inequities:

• Democrats suck at fundraising.

• Democratic challengers weren't very good politicians or weren't prepared to run a competitive campaign.

• There are few deep-pocketed special interests that are aligned with the Democratic Party's platform.

But the more likely causes of the GOP's money advantage are that:

• Republicans, by and large, are incumbents, who have a great advantage in putting the touch on corporations and special interests who need their votes.

• Many of the races were already decided in favor of the Republicans by virtue of GOP-created gerrymandering that concentrated Republican voters in a majority of districts. Special interests who give thousands of dollars to campaigns like to bet on sure winners.

Disclosure: As a political consultant, the author worked in Ed Hooper's unsuccessful 2000 House campaign and his earlier Clearwater City Commission races.

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