TAMPA — Former Gov. Charlie Crist appears to raised more money than Gov. Rick Scott during the month of February -- a situation that could seem shocking considering Scott is the top-spending candidate in the history of Florida politics.
But Republicans say the monthly figures look that way only because of a strategic shift in Scott's fundraising tactics intended to take advantage of discounts for buying political ads and loopholes in Florida's political fundraising laws.
The story illustrates those laws' bewildering complexity, with so many loopholes experts say there is no longer any effective limit on political contributions.
For the month of February, Crist has reported raising $291,877 for his campaign and $817,350 for his independent political committee, Charlie Crist for Florida, for a total of more than $1.1 million.
Scott, meanwhile, reported raising $585,318 for his campaign, and about $186,718 for his independent committee, Let's Get to Work, for a total of about $772,000.
The totals “continue to show Charlie Crist's broad base of support that's out there,” said Bob Poe, veteran Democratic activist and fundraiser who works with Crist's committee. “Another month over $1 million – no other Democrat has ever done that before.”
Crist totalled more than a million in his campaign and independent committee in November, December and January as well, for a total of close to $6 million.
Overall, however, Scott is still trouncing Crist. In the same three months, he raised almost $14 million. Since the beginning of 2011, Let's Get to Work has raised $31.7 million.
Considering Scott and his allies have said he may raise and spend as much as $100 million for the race, it's surprising he should trail Crist in fundraising for any month.
Spokesmen for Scott's Let's Get to Work committee, his campaign and the Republican Party of Florida all either didn't return calls or declined to speak on the record Monday about his fundraising. But the reasons for the February lapse appear to relate to wrinkles in fundraising law and television ad pricing.
According to Pat Roberts, president of the Florida Association of Broadcasters, not all political dollars are equal. Dollars raised by a campaign or a political party can be worth up to twice as much in buying ad time as dollars raised by an independent committee.
That's because federal regulations require television stations to sell advertising time to candidates at what's called the “lowest unit rate” -- the same discount they give the beer, soft drink, auto and other companies that are their biggest customers.
In Florida, that discount also applies to some ads run by state parties -- “three-pack” ads that focus on one candidate but mention at least two others.
Independent committees, including Charlie Crist for Florida and Let's Get to Work, have to pay market rates.
“That might be 10 percent higher, or as you get close to the election and you want to buy during a college football game, it could be as much as double,” Roberts said.
So it makes more sense for Scott to raise money for the GOP and let the party buy his ads rather than Let's Get to Work.
“I'd say it means he has smart lawyers,” Roberts said of Scott's move.
Florida law also allows state parties to pay for payroll, polling, consulting and other costs for its candidates' campaigns. The Republican Party of Florida paid more than $100,000 in payroll and consulting costs for Scott's campaign in February alone; that figure is sure to increase rapidly.
Because parties, unlike campaigns, have no contribution limits, that means those campaign costs can be paid using big contributions.
In addition to slowing fundraising for his committee, Scott also revamped Let's Get to Work, changing it into a kind of committee that can contribute to the party. Previously, as what's known as an “electioneering communication organization,” or ECO, it couldn't.
Crist, meanwhile, has said he believes he can win the race if he's able to raise and spend as much as half of Scott's total, and Crist allies have questioned whether Scott will reach his stated $100 million goal.