As fundraisers go, they couldn’t have been more different.
Last week, Republican Bill Gunter held a noon meet-and-greet at the private Governor's Club during his first Tallahassee fundraiser in the House District 36 race. Reporters were asked to leave the affair, but lobbyists, who walked in and handed Gunter envelopes of money, were welcome to stay and chat with the candidate.
On Wednesday night, Amanda Murphy, the lone Democrat in the District 36 race, let a reporter stay and mingle at Andrews 228 during her first Tallahassee fundraiser. But quite unlike Gunter’s event, few guests showed.
“It’s a very quiet, relaxing atmosphere,” Murphy joked at about 6:15 p.m. The fundraiser started at 5, but only two guests had showed to dine on the tortilla chips and spinach dip.
Dropping by were party leaders Florida Democratic Party Chairwoman Allison Tant, Rep. Darryl Rouson, who is set to become House Minority Leader next year, and Chris Mitchell, political director for the Florida House Democrats.
For Democrats, the District 36 race is a tantalizing one. Suddenly thrown open when Mike Fasano was appointed Pasco Tax Collector by Gov. Rick Scott last month, the race provides the Democrats a rare chance to pick up a seat and push their numbers to 45 members in the Florida House, a level they haven’t had in that chamber in 12 years.
But can Dems match the Republicans, who hold an iron grip on the big lobbying money that finance legislative races?
Mitchell said it’s clear that the House Speaker designate for 2016, Rep. Richard Corcoran, R-Trinity, is pushing hard to get Gunter elected.
“He’s putting pressure where he can,” Mitchell said. “And certain groups and industries are falling in line.”
Murphy acknowledged that it’s not easy to convince lobbyists to give money to an unknown candidate not backed by the leadership of the majority the way Gunter is.
“It’s definitely a case where the people seem to be hesitant,” said Murphy, who is a vice president of investments for Raymond James Financial.
Rouson downplayed the slight attendance at Murphy’s fundraiser. He said Murphy was busy meeting with lobbyists prior to Wednesday night’s event, though he wouldn’t name who they were.
“We’ve had 10 meetings today with various industry groups and lobbyists and every last one of them went extremely well,” Rouson said. “We believe the support is there, the money and funds will come.”
The first campaign finance report is due Sept. 15.
Although the two fundraisers exemplify how difficult it is for Democrats to raise big money in Tallahassee, it also might be misleading. There are 34,926 Democrats to 32,525 Republicans in District 36, which runs along western Pasco County between the Pinellas and Hernando borders, but 21,000 registered as No Party Affiliation. While Gunter faces two other Republicans in the Sept. 17 primary, Jeromy Harding and Jim Mathieu, Murphy can concentrate on just raising money for the Oct. 15 general election.
Meanwhile, Fasano, who has approval ratings in the 80s, won’t endorse any of the Republicans. Not only that, it appears he’s not staying on the sidelines, either. On Wednesday, he tweeted “Disappointing. Attended West Pasco Chamber GOP debate. Not one of the Republican candidates supports plan to help Pasco's uninsured.” It was promptly retweeted by Murphy.
Like Gunter and Harding, Murphy has had to move into the district. She says she and her husband are currently living at the home of her parents, who are retired and live in North Carolina, and plan to buy a permanent home in the district later.
Mitchell said Murphy, 43, will only gain momentum with constituents as the Republicans bicker. Even with low attendance at fundraisers, Democrats will not hold back in raising money for this race, he said.
“Leader Rouson has made very clear that we’re going to win this race and whatever resources we need to bring to bear we will do it,” Mitchell said.