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.
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 that 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.”
Herald/Times staff writer Mary Ellen Klas contributed to this report.