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Special interest checks making a difference in Central Florida’s House races

As the 2018 election heads into its stretch, the advantage of incumbency has never been clearer when it comes to raising campaign money, as incumbents in most Florida House races in Central Florida are getting flooded with dozens or scores of maximum-$1,000 campaign checks from special interests.

In most cases among the 14 Florida House contests stretching from Lake to Brevard counties, and from Osceola to southwest Voluisia counties, incumbents find that their maximum-donation checks from corporations and political committees provide more than half their campaign funds, and in some cases 60 or 70 percent of their funds.

That’s particularly true for Republicans, who have a broader field of business groups and lobbys ready to support their re-elections with four-digit contributions, while Democrats get most of their special interest checks from unions and progressive groups, and there are fewer of those, and a lot fewer able to cut $1,000 checks to numerous candidates.

In some Central Florida races, the challengers have clearly out-hustled the incumbents and attracted more donations by count, yet still trail substantially in the money chase because their opponents are collecting piles of $1,000 contributions while they’re trying to match those with bigger piles of $100 donations.

A review of the sizes of checks and where they come from, based on the latest Florida campaign finance reports, through Sept. 28, offers an illustration of how readily available big money from such interests is for Florida House members, at least in Central Florida. It also shows how much difference those big checks can make.

For example, in Florida’s House District 42 in Osceola County, Democratic challenger Barbara Cady of Kissimmee has collected 450 donations, all of them from individuals, while Republican state Rep. Mike La Rosa of Saint Cloud has drawn just 308 donations for his re-election campaign. Yet La Rosa has attracted 148 $1,000 checks from companies and committees [and that count doesn’t include other big checks from individuals, including lobbyists]. So La Rosa has managed to raise $208,310, to Cady’s $52,099.

For La Rosa, 71 percent of his campaign money this election has come from $1,000 checks from companies and committees. For Cady the perentage is zero.

The same is seen across Central Florida.

In House District 31 in northeast Lake and northwest Orange counties, Republican state Rep. Jennifer Sullivan of Mount Dora has raised 61 percent of her campaign’s $108,095, reported through Sept. 28, off her 64 $1,000 checks from companies and committees. Her opponent, Democrat Debra Kaplan of Eustis, has gotten three such checks; they’ve accounted for 14 percent of her $22,277.

Yet Kaplan has attracted more donations: 278, compared with Sullivan’s 184.

The only major example supporting that pattern among Democratic incumbents seeking election this year in Central Florida is in House District 48 in south and east Orange County. There, state Rep. Amy Mercado of Orlando has attracted 37 $1,000 checks from committees or corporations, and they’ve accounted for 54 percent of her campaign’s $68,171. But then, she almost needn’t bother. Her opponent, Republican George Chandler of Orlando, isn’t really raising campaign money. A late entry, in early August to replace a candidate who dropped, Chandler has only cashed two outside campaign checks, totaling just $800.

Four seats in Central Florida are open this year. With no incumbents, the Republican candidates are drawing the most big checks from special interests in three of those, and the fourth is about even, though none of those candidates see those checks dominating their fundraising, as do most incumbents.

In House District 28, Republican David Smith of Winter Springs has picked up 34 maximum donations from special interests, but they acount for just 19 percent of the $176,429 he’s managed to raise. In House District 32 in Lake County, Republican Anthony Sabatini of Howie in the Hills has picked up 17 such checks, but they’re covering only about a third of his campaign’s $51,692 fund so far. In House District 51 in north Brevard County, Tyler Sirois of Merritt Island has grabbed 44 $1,000 checks from companies and committees, yet they’ve provided only 35 percent of his campaign’s $126,559.

The exception is in Florida House District 47, where the contest between Democrat Anna Eskamani and Republican Stockton Reeves is breaking nearly all the molds. Eskamani has received 38 maximum-amount checks from special interests, yet they account for only 11 percent of the $372,979 her campaign has raised through Sept. 28.  She also has her own political committee, People Power for Florida, which has raised another $33,000 in big checks from committees. Reeves, meanwhile, just received $49,000 from the Republican Party of Florida, and has put $95,000 into his campaign. Not including those sums, which make up most of his chest, the 34 $1,000 checks his campaign has received represents about 41 percent of its outside money.

In other districts:

– In House District 27 covering southwest Volusia County, Republican state Rep. David Santiago of Deltona has received 70 pecent of his campaign’s $211,545 through 148 $1,000 checks from companies or corporations. Democratic opponent Carol Lawrence of Deltona has raised only $4,372 overall, none through big checks.

– In HD 28, Smith’s Democratic opponent Lee Mangold of Casselberry has recevied eight $1,000 checks from committees or companies, and they’ve brought in 23 percent of the $35,198 he raised.

– In House District 29 covering central Seminole County, Republican state Rep. Scott Plakon of Altamonte Springs has recevied 70 maximum-amoung special interest checks, and they amount to about 51 percent of the $138,065 he has raised toward re-election. His Democrat opponent Tracy Kagan of Longwood has received four such checks; they have provided 8 percent of her $49,637.

– In House District 30 in south-central Seminole and north-central Orange, Republican state Rep. Bob Cortes has received 118 maximum checks from committees or companies, and they amount to about 60 percent of the $197,400 he has raised, not including another $49,000 his campaign received from the Republican Party of Florida. His Democratic opponent Joy Goff-Marcil has received seven special interest checks, providing 18 percent of her campaign’s $37,952.

– In HD 32, Sabatini’s Democratic opponent Cynthia Brown has raised $22,745, and that includes three $1,000 checks from special interests, about 13 percent of her total so far.

– In House District 44 in southwest Orange, Republican state Rep. Bobby Olszewski of Winter Garden has recevied 107 $1,000 checks. They amount to 61 percent of the $176,525 his campaign has reported collecting so far. His Democratic opponent, former state Sen. Geraldine Thompson of Orlando, has picked up 15 such checks, bringing in 33 percent of the $46,334 she has raised so far.

– In House District 49 in northeast Orange County, Democratic state Rep. Carlos Guillermo Smith of Orlando has raised $122,322, not including $4,000 from the Florida Democratic Party. He’s picked up 24 $1,000 checks from special interests, about 20 percent of his fund. His opponent Republican Ben Griffin has gotten almost all of his money from a $50,000 donation from the Republican Party of Florida. Of the $12,270 he’s raised on his own, 73 percent has come in the nine $1,000 checks from companies and committees.

– In House District 50 covering east Orange and northwest Brevard counties, Republican state Rep. Rene Plasencia of Orlando has received 60 percent of his campaign’s $210,706 through the 127 $1,000 checks sent his way by companies and committees. His Democratic opponent Pam Dirschka has recevied just three such checks; they’ve provided 23 percent of her $12,737 so far.

– In HD 51, Sirois’s Democratic opponent Mike Blake has recevied two $1,000 checks from committees. They provided 16 percent of his campaign’s $12,520 so far.

– In House District 52 in central and south Brevard County, Republican state Rep. Thad Altman of Indialantic has picked up 46 $1,000 checks from companies and committees, and they’ve provided 64 percent of his campaign’s $71,820 so far. Democratic challenger Seeta Begui of Melbourne has picked up just one such check, and it represents 11 percent of her $9,281 campaign fund.

Written By

Scott Powers is an Orlando-based political journalist with 30+ years’ experience, mostly at newspapers such as the Orlando Sentinel and the Columbus Dispatch. He covers local, state and federal politics and space news across much of Central Florida. His career earned numerous journalism awards for stories ranging from the Space Shuttle Columbia disaster to presidential elections to misplaced nuclear waste. He and his wife Connie have three grown children. Besides them, he’s into mystery and suspense books and movies, rock, blues, basketball, baseball, writing unpublished novels, and being amused. Email him at scott@floridapolitics.com.

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