Big-spending novices now lag in Florida campaigns

By Jane Sutton

MIAMI (BestGrowthStock) – A pair of wealthy outsiders who spent their way to prominence in Florida’s Senate and governor’s races now lag behind the political insiders backed by the party hierarchies in Tuesday’s primary election.

The free-spending novices, real estate billionaire Jeff Greene and healthcare multimillionaire Rick Scott, held double-digit leads over their opponents in July but slipped steadily as their rivals turned the spotlight on the newcomers’ business dealings and character.

“Money can only go so far,” said Peter Brown, assistant director of the Quinnipiac University Polling Institute. “It made two guys nobody ever heard of front-runners. It can’t necessarily get you over the top.”

Greene spent almost $23 million in the run-up to the primary, four times as much as his rival, Representative Kendrick Meek.

He now trails Meek by a dozen points in the race for the Democratic nomination for Florida’s open Senate seat, according to a Mason-Dixon poll of likely voters on Saturday.

The winner will face conservative Republican Marco Rubio and Republican-turned-independent Governor Charlie Crist in the November election to replace George LeMieux, the Republican Crist appointed to finish the term of retired Senator Mel Martinez.

The race is one of a dozen toss-up Senate contests around the United States that could decide the balance of power. Republicans need to gain 39 seats in the House and 10 in the Senate to win control of Congress.

POLITICAL OUTLIERS

In the Republican governor’s race, Scott has spent $39 million — five times that of his rival, Florida Attorney General Bill McCollum — but lags by nine points, The winner faces Democrat Alex Sink, Florida’s chief financial officer, in November.

Neither Scott nor Greene has ever held elected office. Both were virtual unknowns in their political parties and both are relatively new to Florida.

“They’re not just not members of the establishment, they are total outliers,” said Mac Stipanovich, a Republican strategist and campaign manager for former Governor Jeb Bush. “They just came from nowhere, opened their checkbooks and attempted to buy the nomination.”

Both shot to prominence by flooding the airwaves and mailboxes with ads portraying them as savvy businessmen who built companies and fortunes and could create jobs. They spent their own money and said they were not beholden to special interests.

They seemed to be riding a trend seen in California, where two powerful Silicon Valley businesswomen won Republican nominations for governor and the U.S. Senate after capitalizing on their business acumen and personal fortunes.

But strong early showings by Green and Scott began to fade as voters learned more about them and the Democratic and Republican party leadership closed ranks around Meek and McCollum.

Worried that the newcomers would be a drag on their respective tickets, party elders ratcheted up their fund-raising and other support.

Bush hit the campaign trail with McCollum, who served 20 years in Congress, while President Barack Obama and former President Bill Clinton stumped for Meek, a four-term congressman who holds the seat his mother once held.

BACCHANALIA AND FRAUD

Green, who ran unsuccessfully for Congress as a Republican when he lived in California, became a billionaire by buying credit default swaps that rose in value when subprime borrowers defaulted on their home loans.

Meek tagged Greene as a “meltdown mogul” who profited from middle-class homeowners’ misery.

Accounts surfaced of Greene’s lavish Los Angeles parties with friends such as boxer Mike Tyson and Hollywood madam Heidi Fleiss, while former employees told tales of Bacchanalia aboard his yacht, the Summerwind.

When a former deckhand said Greene made a party trip to Cuba, which would be a violation of the U.S. embargo, Greene said it had been a humanitarian mission to Cuba’s Jewish community. His spokesman later said the yacht stopped at the communist island because it had mechanical problems.

McCollum pounded away at Scott’s record as chief executive of Columbia/HCA, the hospital chain that paid $1.7 billion in fines to settle the largest Medicare fraud case in U.S. history.

Scott was never charged with a crime but was forced out of the company in 1997, leaving with a reported $10 million severance payment and $300 million worth of stock.

He said he knew nothing of the fraud that occurred on his watch but that raised doubts about his leadership competency.

In a year when voters are distraught about the economy and fed up with government, Greene and Scott both could have won hands-down if they were perceived as squeaky-clean, said Brad Coker, managing director at Mason-Dixon Polling & Research.

“You can be an independent, wealthy business person and get elected to office but you have to be seen as somebody who made their money honestly and has personal integrity,” Coker said.

“Any whiff of bad character is going to offset 99 percent of the assets that you bring to the race.”

(Editing by Bill Trott)

Big-spending novices now lag in Florida campaigns