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Self-funders on the rise in Florida

By Felicia Sonmez

Unlike other large states, Florida does not have a long history of wealthy candidates successfully self-funding their pursuits for political office but this cycle may change that.

Billionaire real estate developer Jeff Greene (D) and former health care executive Rick Scott (R) have surged to leads in their respective Senate and gubernatorial primaries, according to a new Quinnipiac poll.

Both Greene and Scott entered their respective races at the 11th hour and have been propelled themselves to frontrunner status against more established politicians due to their willingness to spend of their own personal fortunes and voters more willing than in years past to consider candidates with unconventional resumes.

(Greene has spent about $6 million, while Scott has spent a staggering $22 million).

What's surprising about the rises of both Scott and Greene is not only how quickly they came about but that no one like them (ie, really, really, ridiculously wealthy) has met with any measurable success in the fourth largest state -- by population -- in the country previously.

Florida candidates have spent millions on their Congressional campaigns -- most notably Rep. Alan Grayson (D) who spent $2.6 million of his own fortune on his 2008 bid, eking out a 52 percent to 48 percent victory over then-Rep. Rick Keller (R).

Surprisingly few self-funders have run for Senate or governor in the Sunshine State, however.

Before this cycle, the most recent example of a statewide self-funder in Florida was businessman Doug Gallagher (R), who spent $6 million on his unsuccessful bid in 2004 for the seat of retiring Sen. Bob Graham (D). (Gallagher finished third in the Republican primary.)

By contrast, other large states such as California and New York have a long history of self-funders. Al Checchi, the former co-chairman of Northwest Airlines, spent $40 million on his unsuccessful 1998 California gubernatorial bid; former eBay CEO Meg Whitman (R), who's currently running for Sunshine State governor, has thus far spent more than $90 million from her own fortune. New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg (I) spent a stunning $109 million on his bid for a third term.

Even smaller states have seen big money spent by wealthy candidates.

Former World Wrestling Entertainment CEO Linda McMahon (R) has spent more than $21 million so far on her Connecticut Senate bid, and in Massachusetts, Boston Celtics co-owner Stephen Pagliuca (D) spent $7.8 million of his own fortune in his unsuccessful bid for the seat of the late Sen. Ted Kennedy (D-Mass.).

Florida Democratic strategist Steve Schale said that the recent emergence of self-funders in the Sunshine State is in part due to the evolution of the state's political landscape from one that was typically dominated by establishment figures to one that presents more opportunity for outsiders.

"For so long, the state was really controlled by real establishment types -- Graham, Chiles, Nelson, Bush. Just look at our governors' races going back 20 years: the last real open race where there wasn't an establishment heir apparent was 1986," Schale said, referring to the open-seat race for the seat of term-limited Gov. Bob Graham (D) (Graham's lieutenant governor, Wayne Mixson (D), opted not to run).

Schale also noted that the Sunshine State "was a much 'smaller' place until the last 20 years, where candidates could get known through community leaders and local press." Now, with a population that has grown from 13 million in 1990 to 18 million last year, "the only way to get name ID is to buy it," which benefits self-funders, Schale said.

Florida Republican strategist J.M. "Mac" Stipanovich offered up a divine explanation for the historic lack of self-funders in the state:

"Because Almighty God saw fit to give Florida crippling heat and devastating hurricanes to balance its incomparable beauty, He, in his infinite Grace, spared us the Corzines, Bloombergs, and Meg Whitmans of the world. Until now. Now we have Scott and Greene visited upon us like Biblical plagues, atonement, I surmise, for sins the heinous nature of which I can only guess, given the punishment."

Um, ok.

Even if Greene and Scott make it through their primaries -- and if recent polling is anything to go by, they appear on track to do so -- a bigger question remains: will their millions in self-funding will be enough to carry them through the general election?

And, if it is, will the future of Florida politics be forever changed? With Sen. Bill Nelson (D) up for re-election in 2012, a win by either Greene or Scott would almost certainly encourage other wealthy individuals to take a self-funded shot of their own in two years time.

By Felicia Sonmez  |  July 30, 2010; 5:26 PM ET
Categories:  Governors , Senate  
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