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Thursday, Sep 21, 2017
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PACs help Mack close huge campaign cash gap

TAMPA - In campaign fundraising, Democratic Sen. Bill Nelson appears to be crushing his Republican challenger, Rep. Connie Mack IV, with nearly $11 million in the bank to Mack's $1.35 million. In a different political era, those numbers could have made Nelson look almost invulnerable for re-election in November. But in the age of super PACs, independent expenditures and "issue advocacy groups" that spend millions to blast political candidates, the picture could be different. While Mack's fundraising has been anemic, such groups are spending millions, and lining up to spend more, for ads attacking Nelson, in effect eradicating his fundraising advantage.
Bolstered by huge contributions from wealthy political activists, at least seven outside organizations have already run ads, reserved future advertising time or raised money likely to be spent against Nelson — totaling more than he has raised. Those groups have already spent $13.6 million, with at least another $1 million or more raised, according to campaign finance reports, announcements by those groups and checks by the Nelson campaign on purchases of TV time. Those attack ads, along with the well-known name Mack inherited from his father, former Sen. Connie Mack III, appear to be helping keep Mack close to Nelson in polls. The average of polls compiled by the RealClearPolitics website shows Nelson less than 3 points ahead of Mack, 44 percent to 41.2 percent. One poll last week, by Rasmussen Reports, even showed Mack with a substantial lead, 46 percent to Nelson's 37 percent. Democrats and some independent experts called the Rasmussen poll an "outlier" and questioned the reliability of the poll, which had a comparatively small sample and larger argin. But the double-digit lead Nelson enjoyed while Mack was embroiled in a nasty primary fight with George LeMieux clearly has narrowed since LeMieux dropped out June 20. Here are the outside groups and their spending: Nelson may get some outside help of his own in the campaign, but it looks paltry so far compared with Mack's. The Service Employees International Union, a large, politically active union, has said it is sending members to Florida for canvassing. American Bridge, a PAC funded by liberal billionaire George Soros, is also helping Nelson, but it only does opposition research and candidate "tracking" — sending observers to watch and tape Mack's public appearances. A pro-Nelson super PAC, Saving Florida's Future, has formed but raised little money so far — $150,000 as of the end of March. Democrats say the dominance of the groups contributing to his opponent indicates Mack is a weak candidate depending on outsiders because he can't raise money himself. They point to Nelson's fundraising — $1.8 million in the three months ending June 30 — compared with Mack's $839,556. "Floridians reject Connie Mack, but a handful of special interest billionaires spend millions to prop up his bid," was the headline of a news release from the Democratic Party's U.S. Senate campaign committee Friday, calling Mack "a puppet candidate for a few special interest billionaires." Marley Wilkes, Nelson's deputy campaign manager, called Mack "a seriously flawed candidate" but said Nelson "isn't being challenged by Connie Mack IV. He's under attack by a handful of billionaires operating in secret." The Mack campaign said its fundraising has been slow, in part, because of the primary race, and it will pick up — and it's happy to have the support of the outside groups. "With everyone's focus now squarely on November, money is flowing into this campaign because it's clear Bill Nelson can and will be defeated," said campaign manager Jeff Cohen. "There is also no shortage of outside groups who are and who will continue to spend great sums of money to defeat" Nelson.

wmarch@tampatrib.com (813) 259-7761

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