By Steve Bousquet
Gov. Rick Scott's poll numbers remain stubbornly low, but by another measure he looks much stronger: raising money for his re-election campaign.
Scott's political machine Let's Get to Work raised a whopping $4.6 million in the first three months of 2013, raking in cash at the rate of $50,000 every day while chasing a goal of up to $100 million to fund his 2014 re-election campaign.
It's an unheard of sum even in Florida politics, where money has always been critical.
Individual checks of $10,000 or more flood Scott's campaign daily, many from businesses and individuals with a heavy stake in legislation, from Blue Cross Blue Shield to U.S. Sugar to an array of law firms with rosters of lobbying clients at the Capitol.
Pinellas County moneyman Bill Edwards stroked Scott a $500,000 check last week.
And while lawmakers are not allowed to accept donations during session because of the appearance of a crass quid pro quo, no such rule limits a governor's ability to raise money, even though Scott's veto pen makes him the final gatekeeper on all legislative decisions.
Scott and his wife Ann spent $75 million of their own money in his successful 2010 race, raising only $6.5 million from outside sources.
He still has vast wealth, but something else just as valuable: incumbency. No longer an outsider, Scott now has the backing of Republican insiders who shunned him before.
Scott has raised nearly $9.8 million since taking office in 2011. The average contribution? Close to $9,700.
"That's the power of incumbency -- to sustain a continuous fundraising advantage over your opponents. He would be foolish not to take advantage of that," said Brian Ballard, a lobbyist and Scott supporter. "It's going to be a $100 million race. If you don't start early, you're in a hole."
Ballard, who was Charlie Crist's chief fundraiser in 2006, recently arranged a get-acquainted dinner with Scott and a client, Norman Estes, a major Florida nursing home owner. Meredith O'Rourke, who was Crist's 2006 finance director, now holds the same position for Scott.
New York developer Donald Trump, once a major Crist booster, has sent $50,000 to Scott's campaign.
Governors typically raise money for their political parties between elections, but Scott is the first Florida governor to keep his personal campaign apparatus permanently up and running.
Quietly, Scott has kept up a busy evening schedule of fundraising events, from one-on-one dinners with well-heeled donors to larger receptions like the one a few weeks ago at the home of Carol Dover, head of the Florida Restaurant and Lodging Association.
Within days, the campaign collected dozens of checks from hoteliers and restaurateurs across the state.
Driving Scott's need to stockpile millions is the expected candidacy of Crist, a Republican-turned-Democrat who has a big lead over Scott in early polling and who is known as a highly effective fundraiser.
Scott can accept checks in unlimited amounts because his campaign fund is an electioneering communications organization or ECO that's not subject to the $500 contribution limit that typically applies to candidates. The only limitation on activities by Let's Get to Work is that it can't "expressly advocate" Scott's re-election by using words such as "vote for" or "elect" in advertising.
Scott's ECO must have a website, letsgettowork.net and post contributions and expenses within five days.
Edwards, a Treasure Island businessman and entertainment mogul who operates St. Petersburg's Mahaffey Theater, recently wrote Scott's campaign its largest single check, for $500,000. That's nearly as much as the $600,000 Edwards paid last year to erect a vertical gateway sign on I-275 in St. Petersburg.
"A lot of people support what I'm doing as governor, and Bill is an individual who does that. He believes in good government," Scott said, citing his efforts to generate jobs and improve schools.
Edwards did not respond to a request for comment.
Blue Cross has so far given $237,500 to Scott's campaign this year. Now known as Florida Blue, the group and its lobbyist Mike Hightower are fighting a Senate plan to repeal an insurance industry tax break and use the money to roll back car registration fees. That bill could reach Scott's desk.
Scott received a $250,000 donation from Fort Lauderdale billionaire H. Wayne Huizenga, whose son, Harry Jr., is a new Scott appointee to the state university system's Board of Governors, which Scott has urged not to approve any more student tuition increases.
Florida Power & Light has donated $250,000 to Scott's re-election and Progress Energy gave $100,000. Scott has not taken a stand on legislation that would make it harder for utilities to pass the costs of nuclear plant construction to ratepayers.
As Scott continues to collect large donations during the legislative session, a Democratic legislator urged the House to prevent Scott from raising campaign money during sessions, the same as lawmakers. But Republicans came to Scott's rescue, and Rep. Alan Williams' amendment failed along party lines, 71-43.
"It would certainly increase public trust in our officials to see a complete break from fundraising during session and when bills are on the governor's desk," said Dan Krassner of Integrity Florida.
Real estate and development interests are a mainstay of Scott's support network. They include The Villages, which gave Scott $100,000, and its developer, Gary Morse, who personally gave $50,000; Bayfront 2011 Development LLC of Miami, $100,000, and Trump, $50,000.
Even some Democrats say they grudgingly admire Scott's skill at amassing millions through a no-limits electioneering committee.
"It's the wave of the future," said lawyer Mark Herron, an expert on state campaign finance laws. "It gives the candidate a lot of control over his message, and it allows him to receive contributions in huge chunks."
(c)2013 The Miami Herald