ST. PETERSBURG — The top spender on political television advertisements in the city’s mayoral race is not incumbent Bill Foster nor challenger Rick Kriseman.
It’s an electioneering group funded by the Republican Party of Florida.
In another sign of how the officially nonpartisan race has become a political battleground, the Tallahassee-based group Accountability in Government has spent more than $70,000 to flood the airwaves with more than 3,200 negative ads slamming Kriseman in the run-up to Tuesday’s election.
Classified as an electioneering group, Accountability in Government recently received $96,000 in donations from the state Republican Party. Its ads, which have aired over a four-week period, characterize Kriseman, a Democrat, as a career politician who voted to raise his own pay and never sponsored a single bill to create jobs.
The negative ad blitz might be a last-ditch bid to overturn Kriseman’s lead in recent polls. The level of spending is more than either candidate has allocated for TV spots throughout the long primary and general election campaigns. Foster, whose TV ads began airing in July, has spent $65,000 on them, records show. Kriseman’s campaign has spent about $61,000.
At stake is the last major city along the Interstate 4 corridor that is controlled by a Republican. The corridor is seen as crucial to electoral success in Florida, and a Foster victory would give the GOP momentum going into a 2014 campaign season that includes a special election to fill the seat left vacant by the death of U.S. Rep. C.W. Bill Young plus gubernatorial, state House and state Senate races.
Republicans also will want to put behind them the loss of the state House District 36 seat in Pasco County, which was won by Democrat Amanda Murphy, said Judithanne Scourfield McLauchlan, a political science professor at the University of South Florida St. Petersburg.
“If they can hold onto Bill Foster’s seat, they’ll be able to say they are bucking the tide,” she said. “For them, it’s about stopping the bleeding.”
The state Republican Party did not get involved in the election until local leaders, including state Sen. Jack Latvala, called on party leaders to back Foster because his opponent already was receiving direct donations from the Florida Democratic Party.
To date, that party has donated about $40,000 to Kriseman to pay the salary of campaign manager Cesar Fernandez; it also has made in-kind donations for research.
During the primary election, Foster blasted Kriseman for accepting such support, but he subsequently has received similar help. The state GOP is paying for its Tampa Bay area regional field director to work part-time on Foster’s campaign. It also has made direct contributions including a $13,000 check last month.
“It speaks to his hypocrisy,” said Fernandez, Kriseman’s campaign manager. “He ran against partisan spending in the mayor’s race for six months prior to the Republican Party of Florida coming into the race and trying to bail out his campaign.”
Local Republicans counter that Foster has no choice but to accept help if he is to compete with Kriseman.
“The real question is why did Kriseman take a nonpartisan race and make it partisan,” said Michael Guju, chairman of the Pinellas County Republicans, which also has donated to Foster.
With just three days until polls open, residents shouldn’t expect any let-up in the message war, said McLauchlan.
“In the last few days when it comes down to the wire, it gets much more intense,” she said. “For the next few days, voters will be bombarded with messages.”