In races for U.S. House, Florida has some big spenders

The contests for several U.S. House seats from Florida have been among the most expensive in the nation this year, with five contests topping $5 million in spending, according to federal campaign finance records.

The overall average for Florida’s U.S. House races is in line with the national average: $1.8 million among Florida races, $1.6 million nationally. And like the national scene, the Florida spending is concentrated in a relatively small number of competitive races – while spending in some races is virtually nil.

Indeed, total expenditures in Florida’s races this cycle have ranged from $6.5 million to just $218,000.

The analysis is based on U.S. Federal Election Commission records for U.S. House races through the Oct. 15 filing period. It includes the category of “operating expenditures” by all the campaigns in a race, including those with competitive primaries and special elections.

The analysis only includes money by the candidates themselves – not outside groups, which pour money into competitive races and make the overall totals even more lopsided.

The most money spent in a Florida district by the candidates this election cycle was largely because of a special election: the race for the 19th Congressional District in and around Fort Myers.

In that race to replace U.S. Rep. Trey Radel, the Republican arrested in late 2013 on charges of buying cocaine from an undercover officer, Republican Curt Clawson won a special election in June against Democrat April Freeman. He also faced a competitive primary.

So far, Clawson has spent $4.8 million this election cycle, Freeman $205,000 and other candidates – most in the primary – $1.5 million. Total spending has been $6.5 million, according to FEC filings. It’s the 10th most expensive in the country this cycle.

Elsewhere in the state, in the Bradenton-area district served by Republican Rep. Vern Buchanan, the incumbent has dominated the spending, with expenditures-to-date of $771,000 compared with $47,000 by opponent Henry Lawrence.

South Florida has one of the most expensive races in the country – the 26th district, ranking in the top 25 nationally – and also one of the cheapest: the 24th district, which ranks among the cheapest dozen in the nation.

The 26th district contest between U.S. Rep. Joe Garcia, a Democrat, and Republican Carlos Curbelo is one in which outside funding made an already expensive election even more costly. Outside funds not spent by the candidates themselves have flooded the race, helping bring the total cost above $14 million; the tally by the candidates themselves is $5.3 million.

The reasons for such lopsided spending by district have been explored for years by political scientists and campaign experts, and it generally comes down to the huge built-in advantages that incumbents have.

“It’s very difficult – no matter how unpopular Congress is – to beat an incumbent,” said Meredith McGehee, policy director of the Campaign Legal Center in Washington. “The re-election rates top 90 percent even when Congress has an approval rate in the low teens.”

A September Gallup poll had the congressional approval rate at 14 percent, one of the lowest in the fall before a midterm election since 1974.

In many cases, district lines have been drawn to give one party or the other the advantage – packing it full of Democratic or Republican voters, and thus giving an incumbent of that party a strong advantage.

In addition, incumbents have a major advantage in the ability to attract media attention. “You go to an opening of a new airport hangar or a new business in town and all that visibility translates into name recognition,” McGehee said. “That name recognition is an incredible asset that some candidates have to spend millions just trying to replace or equal.”

Incumbents also have a built-in advantage of fundraising to Washington lobbyists who are more than happy to contribute money to friendly lawmakers already sitting on the committees they care about. It helps them scare off any real competition.

“It’s hard to raise money when you’re facing an opponent who already has a pretty serious war chest,” said Russ Choma of the Center for Responsive Politics, a nonpartisan organization that tracks campaign money.

The other top-spending Florida races are:

– The 18th District from Fort Pierce and areas south, with total spending in the cycle of $5.9 million. Incumbent Rep. Patrick Murphy, a Democrat, has spent the majority of that, at $4.2 million. Republican Carl Domino has led a pack of Republicans in spending the other $1.7 million.

– The 2nd District in and around Tallahassee, with total spending of $5.7 million. Democrat Gwen Graham, daughter of former Florida Gov. Bob Graham, has the slight edge in spending over incumbent Republican Rep. Steve Southerland – but of any of the big-spending races, it’s the most evenly matched.

– The 13th District in the St. Petersburg area, where Republican Rep. David Jolly won a special election earlier this year and faces no significant opposition in the general election. Total candidate spending in the cycle has been $5.4 million.

At the other end of the spectrum?

– South Florida’s 24th District, where incumbent Rep. Frederica Wilson, a Miami Gardens Democrat, has spent most of the $237,000.

– The 14th District in Tampa, where incumbent Rep. Kathy Castor, a Democrat, has spent just $218,000.