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Tuesday, Apr 24, 2018
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Campaign contributions pile up in Bay area coffers

TALLAHASSEE — The power of incumbency continues to drive money into candidates’ coffers, even when there are no challengers.

Third-quarter fundraising reports, due late Thursday at the state’s Division of Elections, show that incumbent Tampa Bay-area lawmakers running for re-election collectively raised $602,243, for a total of $1.41 million.

Republicans with no opposition, especially, raked it in. For example:

Sen. Jeff Brandes, who represents parts of Hillsborough and Pinellas counties, raised $55,350 between July 1 and Sept. 30, bringing his total to $203,550.

Sen. Wilton Simpson, who represents Hernando and parts of Pasco and Sumter counties, raised $80,691 in the same period, for $252,896 overall.

Rep. Dana Young, the House deputy majority leader who represents South Tampa, took in $102,561 in the third quarter, bringing her total to $173,711.

“I am blessed to have such a strong relationship with my community and my constituents,” Young said. She pointed to a September fundraiser in Tampa in which the bulk of contributions came from the region.

Attorney General Pam Bondi, who hails from Tampa, filed for re-election on July 1. She also is running unopposed.

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But she still brought in $404,901, reported an additional $219,787 as in-kind donations, and will benefit from $855,732 in a separate political communications fund.

Call that money a security blanket.

“Having cash on hand, especially large amounts of cash on hand, actually serves to deter challengers in both primary and general elections,” said William Claggett, a political science professor at Florida State University.

Of his take, Brandes has spent $68,658 on campaign consulting, direct mail political advertising and email appeals, among other expenses, according to online state records.

Brandes this week also said he would not run for the seat being vacated by U.S. Rep. C.W. Bill Young, citing the demands of traveling to Washington and the toll that would take on his family.

“We are humbled by the support Pam Bondi has received from across the state and believe it reflects her tireless efforts to make Florida a safer and better place to live,” campaign manager Pablo Diaz said.

“From closing down pills mills and banning synthetic drugs to attacking waste and fraud in housing and health care, Pam’s hard work and dedication are making a difference,” he said.

A separate committee connected to Bondi, known as an electioneering communications organization, is called “And Justice for All.”

That $855,732 fund includes a $500,000 check from the Republican State Leadership Committee, which helps conservative GOP candidates get into state office.

“Florida needs another four more years with General Bondi as top law enforcement officer, and I’m proud to be part of an organization that will support her every step of the way,” Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt said on behalf of the committee.

Pruitt said he was especially impressed with Bondi’s opposition of the Affordable Care Act.

“Her efforts have alerted Floridians — and Americans — to the fact that the new health care law will hurt small businesses, raise health insurance premiums and put our identities in the hands of undertrained and underqualified workers,” he said.

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Other contributors to Bondi’s ECO include the Florida Chamber of Commerce ($50,000), the Donald J. Trump Foundation ($25,000), and Bondi’s longtime partner, Tampa ophthalmologist Greg Henderson ($25,000).

What an “electioneering communication” is, however, continues to befuddle.

State law defines it as “refer(ring) to or depict(ing) a clearly identified candidate for office without expressly advocating the election or defeat of a candidate but that is susceptible of no reasonable interpretation other than an appeal to vote for or against a specific candidate.”

Such ads can’t be run any earlier than 30 days before a primary or 60 days before a general election and have to be “targeted to the relevant electorate” — in Bondi’s case, the whole state.

More to the point, they can’t use the terms “vote for” or “vote against” or “re-elect.”

“It’s weird,” said Ken Sukhia, former U.S. attorney for North Florida and now a private lawyer in Tallahassee specializing in election law.

“It’s like an ad where they include a picture of a candidate and don’t say to vote for him but really we all know that’s what they’re saying.”

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