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Unlimited Corporate Money In Fla. Political Races 'Worries Political Scientists'

Tuesday’s Florida primary and the upcoming general election in November are the first since the highly controversial Citizens United Supreme Court decision, which removed all limits on how much corporations can spend to help federal candidates get elected. Florida’s campaign finance system already allows unlimited money to flow through committees that help elect candidates. Now, political scientists are worried that adding Citizens United to the mix is making it even harder for average voters to know who’s behind campaign messages.

Tuesday’s primary will officially determine the Republican challenger against incumbent Democratic U.S. Senator, Bill Nelson. But Connie Mack emerged months ago as the overwhelming favorite. Florida State University political scientist Carol Weissert, says Mack’s vast lead over his opponents probably has something to do with a barrage of advertisements, runs on his behalf, by so-called Super PACs. These entities, which have sprung up since the Supreme Court ruling on Citizens United, are allowed to accept unlimited donations from corporations, unions and other groups.

Florida State University Political Science professor Carole Weissert, says these unaffiliated attack ads are a disturbing trend because it’s harder for voters to know whom to hold accountable for them, many of which contain outright lies.

"That worries political scientists because we like to see the candidate raise money and have control over that money rather than have, in this case, groups outside the state coming in and spending money on negative ads," she says.

And negative super PAC Ads spawn negative response ads. Nelson’s campaign just released a counter-attack in response to the mega-million-dollar pro-Mack ad frenzy that includes these words: "Florida, meet Connie Mack the fourth, a promoter for Hooters with a history of barroom brawling.”

And unlimited spending by groups unaffiliated with candidates doesn’t just influence federal races. For local and state candidates, their campaign coffers are just the tip of the iceberg, when it comes to the dollars at their disposal to help them get elected. That’s because, much like the federal super PAC’s, state-level multi-purpose Committees of Continuous Existence, or CCE's, can throw their unlimited money toward candidates, Weissert says.

“If I’m a legislator and I have a CCE, I can use that money for food, for entertainment, for staffing, for a whole variety of different kinds of things," she says.

Weissert says legislative leaders can also use their CCE's to help get other like-minded people elected to their chambers.

“I want you to vote for me for speaker in a couple of years, then I might share that money with you," she says. 

And with a $500 limit on individual contributions to any candidate’s campaign, CCE’s are often where the big money goes.

"And what we’re seeing in Florida, and other places, is that big companies—the Publix, the Disney's—are giving big money to these groups," she says.

Unlimited money is also flowing into another type of state committee called an Electioneering Communications Organization. They’re behind TV and radio ads, telephone calls and fliers mailed to voters’ home. Like the federal super PAC's, they must include disclaimers that say "Paid for By" at the end of ads. But many of them have vague names like Voter Interest Group and Transparency in Government, and some advocacy groups argue voters aren’t getting enough information.

Peter Butzin is the Florida state chairman of Common Cause, a group that lobbies for greater transparency in government. He says he disagrees with the Citizens United decision, which said limiting corporations’ spending was an unconstitutional limit on their free speech.

“When freedom of speech depends on who can pay for that speech, it’s no longer free. It’s speech that is bought and sold in the marketplace by people who have the big bucks to have an outcome on political campaigns," he says.

Butzin says, Common Cause lobbies for an amendment to the U.S. Constitution that would put a cap on campaign spending and finance political campaigns with privately raised funds supplemented with public money.

“Candidates have a right, and I think they have a responsibility, to get their message out to the voters. But I think that that ought to be funded by smaller contributions from individual sources, and those small contributions probably wouldn’t be enough to pay for a full campaign," he says.

In Florida, public campaign financing is available to match individual donations from Florida residents. But, candidates can forego public money, with no upper limit to how much they’re allowed to spend on their own campaigns.

Carole Weissert says, the highest-spending candidate doesn’t always win the election.

“I guess the good news is, it’s not money alone. But it certainly helps," she says.

Weissert and Butzin agree that, while money might not always win the election, it can at least muddy the waters of how the public perceives candidates. And for that reason, they urge voters to attend candidate forums, watch debates and, if they still have questions, write directly to the candidate for answers.