POLITICS
08/23/2010 04:21 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Florida Primary Election: Wealthy Candidates Could Topple Establishment-Backed Competitors

The primary election fights unfolding in Florida have produced no shortage of fiery attacks and extremely pricey campaigns.

While the race for the state's Republican gubernatorial nomination and Democratic Senate nomination are certainly distinct political fights, both match-ups bear a striking resemblance: Independently wealthy candidates could potentially topple competitors backed by their respective political establishments.

The escalating war between State Attorney General Bill McCollum and former health care industry executive Rick Scott for the state's Republican gubernatorial nomination can safely be described as downright dirty.

Heading into the midterm election season, McCollum was predicted to cruise through the primary and claim the rights to take on Democrat Alex Sink, Florida's Chief Financial Officer, in the state's general election. That expection was challenged, however, when Scott made a late jump into the mix with the intention of spending massive sums of his personal wealth on his electoral pursuit.

Burning $38,960,313 as of last week in what has been dubbed the "50 million primary," Scott has relentlessly hammered McCollum with negative ads and vicious attacks. The former health care exec recently charged the state AG with being the "Tonya Harding of Florida politics" and in one television spot suggested voters should throw McCollum out like a baby's dirty diaper.

When asked last week in an interview with the Florida Times-Union if he would characterize some of his ads as negative, Scott said, "Absolutely not." On his campaign's messaging, the wealthy hopeful explained, "I believe that what I've tried to do is talk about who I am. I've had to defend myself and then I talk about the difference between my opponent and me."

Much of the damage control Scott's camp has been forced to conduct relates to his profession prior to stepping into the political arena. Politifact, a non-partisan group, relays the background of the story:

Was Scott running Columbia/HCA when it found itself at the center of a massive federal investigation? Yes.

Did the company pay a record $1.7 billion in government penalties and fines? Yes, Columbia/HCA paid.

And as we checked in this item, did his former company commit fraud? Yes, it pleaded guilty to fraud charges as part of a settlement.

Of course, the million-dollar question is how much of the blame ultimately falls on Scott? And that's an answer we can't provide.

McCollum has aimed to capitalize on the political baggage. As of last week, his campaign had spent a total of $13,671,277, combined with contributions from allied groups.

The Florida Attorney General, however, has struggled to keep up with Scott's pricey campaign and escape attacks on controversy surrounding his own candidacy. Some of the assaults he's had to defend have related to scandalous spending habits demonstrated by the Florida GOP as well as the recent arrest of former state party Chairman Jim Greer on charges of fraud, felony grand theft, and money laundering.

Meanwhile, in Florida's Democratic Senate primary, another self-funding candidate is running with plenty of dirty laundry and spending big bucks to defeat an establisment-backed candidate.

Since making a late and unantipated leap into the race, billionaire Jeff Greene -- who made his fortune betting on risky subprime mortgage loans -- has hurled non-stop attacks at U.S. Congressman Kendrick Meek to advance his campaign. Greene's camp has even dragged his rival's mother, former Rep. Carrie Meek, into the crossfire.

As for Meek, the Florida Democrat currently representing Florida's 17th district has run with the message that he's the only "real Democrat in this race." In touting his firm opposition to offshore drilling and support for health care reform, Meek has underlined, "Of the four major candidates, including my Democratic opponent, I am the only candidate that hasn't run as a Republican in the past."

(Former State House Speaker Marco Rubio is running for Senate as the GOP nominee, while Gov. Charlie Crist dropped his affiliation with the Republican Party to run as an independent earlier this year. As for Greene, the Democratic hopeful made an unsuccessful bid for Congress as a Republican in California in 1982.)

Meek has also targeted the spending habits of Greene's campaign, as well as his credibility when it comes to seemingly incessant controversy related to his 145-foot luxury yacht.

"Jeff Greene can buy anything, except the truth," accused a narrator in one Meek campaign ad. On separate occasion Meek himself charged, "[Greene] [has] more versions of why [he] went to Cuba than Baskin Robins has flavors of ice cream," when it comes to the inconsistent accounts Greene has made in defending flare-ups related to his boat, which has been described as having "vomit caked all over the sides from all the partying going on."

Despite the jaw-dropping accounts, Greene has managed to drive an extremely competitive campaign. Recent reports suggest the super-wealthy Senate hopeful had dropped roughly $22.89 million on his campaign.

Adam Smith at the St. Petersburg Times recently noted:

There is an excellent chance that on Aug. 24 Florida will have a very rich Democratic Senate nominee and a very rich Republican gubernatorial nominee opposed by their respective party establishments. It's an unprecedented situation that has partisans on both sides wary of the potential intra-party turmoil just as a general election kicks off.

Some have said that Greene's loose party affiliation could be an issue for voters, as well as for the larger Democratic establishment. In Scott's case, the gubernatorial hopeful reportedly maintains no allegiance to the state GOP or its operatives who have gone to great lengths to defeat him.

With Florida's primary election just one day away, a last-minute Mason-Dixon poll shows McCollum and Meek holding healthy leads over their respective rivals. According to the survey, McCollum is ahead of Scott by a margin of 45 percent to 36 percent and Meek is in front of Greene by a margin of 42 percent to 30 percent.

The poll suggests that a significant portion of the Florida electorate remains undecided as to which candidate to support in either race. According to the poll, 15 percent of voters are undecided on their preference in the gubernatorial match-up, while 25 percent feel the same about the Senate primary.