Outside Groups Lay Millions On Florida Special Election

Republican David Jolly thanks supporters during a campaign rally in Indian Rocks Beach, Fla. i i

Republican David Jolly thanks supporters during a campaign rally in Indian Rocks Beach, Fla. Steve Nesius/AP hide caption

itoggle caption Steve Nesius/AP
Republican David Jolly thanks supporters during a campaign rally in Indian Rocks Beach, Fla.

Republican David Jolly thanks supporters during a campaign rally in Indian Rocks Beach, Fla.

Steve Nesius/AP

The campaign for a congressional seat in St. Petersburg, Fla., will have seen some $10 million in spending by candidates and outside groups. Where did all of this money go?

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One hallmark of that special election is the outside money, about $9 million has been reported so far and that easily surpasses what the candidates spent. The outside groups often stuck to the party-line arguments for their candidates, but sometimes they raised their own agendas.

Here's NPR's Peter Overby.

PETER OVERBY, BYLINE: Since March 1st, federal records show that pro-Democratic groups have outspent pro-Republican groups about 3-to-2 in the special election. The League of Conservation Voters Victory Fund and Sierra Club's Political Committee teamed up on this TV ad tagging GOP candidate David Jolly as a climate change denier.

(SOUNDBITE OF A POLITICAL AD)

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: David Jolly, back to school, not to Congress. LCV Victory Fund and the Sierra Club Political Committee are responsible for...

OVERBY: Jeff Gohringer is national press secretary for the League of Conservation Voters.

JEFF GOHRINGER: Well, we wanted to send the strongest message that climate change should play a leading role in this race. And we're excited that it has.

OVERBY: The U.S. Chamber of Commerce spent $1.2 million to help Jolly. That's according to the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics. The chamber's national political director called Jolly the only candidate who would fight for free enterprise and local jobs. One chamber ad connected Alex Sink to the Affordable Care Act and House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi.

(SOUNDBITE OF A POLITICAL AD)

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: The last thing Pinellas seniors can afford is Alex Sink, a rubber stamp for Nancy Pelosi and her risky scheme. The U.S. Chamber is responsible for the content...

OVERBY: These ads are expensive. That's because Pinellas County is just one part of the high-priced Tampa-St. Petersburg TV market. So a Washington-based Democratic superPAC tried something a bit different. House Majority PAC put up two ads but for just two weeks total. One of the ads attacked Jolly for lobbying on behalf of a group that supported Social Security privatization.

(SOUNDBITE OF A POLITICAL AD)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Don't let David Jolly get any closer to jeopardizing Social Security. House Majority PAC is responsible for...

OVERBY: House Majority PAC timed the ads to air at the start of the vote-by-mail process. Then it followed the ads with direct mail. Andy Stone, the superPAC's spokesman, said the mail went to voters who supported Democrats in 2012 but might not have bothered this time.

ANDY STONE: There were multiple - multiple pieces of mail that went to them to compel them to vote. There were efforts to reconnect with them afterwards to see that they had actually cast a ballot.

OVERBY: But there's an argument that all of this out-of-state money isn't the be-all and end-all, not in a special election for Congress.

Daniel Smith is a political scientist at the University of Florida in Gainesville. He says the big TV ad buys are impressive but not as effective as local contacts.

DANIEL SMITH: Much of the focus has been on the air wars. In a special election, that's not really where the action is.

OVERBY: He says the action is on the sidewalks and the telephones, person-to-person contact. In this race that meant labor unions the National Rifle Association and the National Right-To-Life Committee; well-funded national groups with thousands of local followers.

SMITH: Those are much more effective types of communication than are general TV ads that are not really going to be bringing people, who are unlikely voters to the polls.

OVERBY: Those three groups combined - the unions, the NRA and National Right to Life - spent roughly $38,000 this month, far less than almost any of the TV blitzes. Whether it's the right model for future campaigns, that's what the consultants and the analysts will be trying to figure out.

Peter Overby, NPR News, Washington.

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