Political Insider: Shadowy group targeting Vern Buchanan

July 07–U.S. Rep. Vern Buchanan has a big advantage as he seeks a seventh term representing Manatee County and portions of Sarasota and Hillsborough counties in Congress: Lots and lots of campaign cash.

The Longboat Key Republican entered campaign season with more than $2 million in cash on hand and has raised another $1.3 million over the last nine months, including $640,000 during the second quarter of 2018.

That fundraising has allowed Buchanan to spend big on early television advertising while also stockpiling cash for the final stretch. Whoever emerges from the Democratic primary between David Shapiro and Jan Schneider could have significant ground to make up.

But the Democrats are getting help from a shadowy outside group.

Floridians for a Fair Shake announced in April that it was launching a campaign targeting Buchanan’s record on taxes and health care.

The group has stepped up its efforts in recent weeks, spending $603,718 on an attack ad criticizing Buchanan’s support for the GOP tax bill. It even hired an airplane on the Fourth of July to fly along the region’s crowded beaches with a banner targeting the congressman.

It’s unclear who is funding Floridians for a Fair Shake. The group’s communications director, Stephen Gaskill, said his organization is a 501(c)(4) “social welfare” nonprofit. These groups do not have to disclose their donors and only are required to report their spending to the Federal Election Commission if they explicitly advocate for or against the election of a candidate, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.

But some Floridians for a Fair Shake employees have ties to the Democratic Party. Gaskill runs his own public relations firm. The firm’s website describes him as “a veteran of Democratic politics.”

“Stephen has held senior communications roles in the Bill Clinton, Al Gore and John Kerry presidential campaigns,” the site says.

Maxwell Frost is coordinating the Floridians for a Fair Shake campaign against Buchanan on the ground. The Florida Democratic Party paid Frost to work as the field director for Democratic state Rep. Margaret Good’s special election campaign.

Gaskill said Floridians for a Fair Shake “is not aligned with any party.” He said the bulk of the group’s funding comes from a group called Protect Our Care, which says on its website that it is a “coalition of groups leading the fight against Republicans’ ongoing efforts to repeal and sabotage health care.”

Floridians for a Fair Shake also has been hammering Buchanan for voting to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act.

A poll commissioned in April by the liberal group Patriot Majority USA, and conducted by Public Policy Polling, a Democratic polling firm, found Buchanan leading Shapiro by 12 percentage points. But that advantage dropped to five percentage points after survey respondents were given negative information about Buchanan’s record on health care and taxes.

Gaskill said his group is simply focused on educating voters about Buchanan’s record on two key issues.

“We do not support candidates; we talk issues,” he said.

Buchanan campaign manager Max Goodman criticized the group’s lack of transparency.

“Dark money groups that hide in the shadows while attempting to deceive the public are why so many people hate politics,” Goodman said.

In response to questions about who is supporting Floridians for a Fair Shake, Gaskill released a list of six advisory committee members. They include Bradenton author Bonnie Friedman, a former federal government employee who wrote a book about her struggles navigating the health care system on behalf of her husband. Bill Sauers, president of the progressive advocacy group Florida Alliance of Retired Americans, also is advising Floridians for a Fair Shake.

In addition to targeting Buchanan with the airplane banner over the holiday, volunteers with Floridians for a Fair Shake gathered that morning to draw chalk art criticizing Buchanan’s record on health care and taxes. The chalk art washed away in the late afternoon rain, but the ad paid for by Floridians for a Fair Shake will run through the end of July on every television network.

The television ad cites an Associated Press article from April headlined: “Florida lawmaker stands to gain from tax law he shepherded.”

“Vern Buchanan made millions selling used cars,” the ad states, referencing Buchanan’s ownership of car dealerships. “Now Vern Buchanan is making millions selling the new tax law he helped write.”

Buchanan is one of the richest members of Congress. The AP calculates his net worth at a minimum of $80 million and notes his wealth could grow because of the tax breaks in the new law, which include “breaks for the real estate and automobile industries that generate most of his income.”

Buchanan serves on the House Ways and Means Committee, which crafted the tax law. He has touted the law as an economic stimulus that will have broad benefits.

The ad also claims that “most Americans will pay more in taxes” under the legislation Buchanan championed and cites a Dec. 18 report from the Tax Policy Center to justify the statement.

But that report found that the legislation will reduce taxes for the vast majority of taxpayers over the next decade, and by about $1,600 on average in 2018.

“An ad that criticizes a tax cut for 90 percent of Americans just sounds like a brilliant idea,” Goodman said sarcastically. “We’d love to have this debate.”

The Tax Policy Center does predict that 53 percent of taxpayers will pay more in 2027. That’s because “almost all individual income tax provisions would sunset after 2025.” But the ad doesn’t make it clear that the tax hike won’t occur for many years.

“There may be a small tax break for some people now but it is going to end,” Gaskill said in defending the ad.

Republicans believe there’s a good chance a future Congress could extend the tax cuts.

Floridians for a Fair Shake plans to keep the pressure on Buchanan. The group is working with Florida Planned Parenthood Alliance to host a health care town hall Saturday at the North Sarasota Library.

But it’s the television advertising that could have the biggest impact on the race.

Buchanan hoped to gain an advantage with his early advertising spending, which began in April.

But a $603,000 ad buy is substantial and could offset much of that effort to burnish Buchanan’s image.

Good gets GOP support

Not only is Democratic state Rep. Margaret Good dominating in fundraising in the District 72 race, but now she is getting help raising campaign cash from a prominent Republican.

Nora Patterson, a former Sarasota County commissioner, is among the hosts listed on an invitation for Good’s July 11 fundraiser at the home of Heather and Derek Byrd.

Patterson is a moderate Republican who served on the Sarasota City Commission and spent 16 years on the county commission. Patterson’s support gives Good bipartisan credibility as she seeks to defend the state House seat she won in a February special election.

Sarasota Republicans Ray Pilon and Jason Miller are vying to take on Good, who lives on Siesta Key. Pilon, a former state representative, and Patterson ran for a state Senate seat in 2016, losing in the GOP primary to Sen. Greg Steube.

Good has collected $193,056 between her campaign account and an affiliated political committee, compared to $43,624 for Pilon. Miller loaned his campaign $2,500.

NRA nod in District 73

One of the most influential groups in GOP politics is weighing into the race for a state House seat covering eastern Manatee County and part of eastern Sarasota County.

Last week the National Rifle Association Political Victory Fund endorsed Sarasota attorney Tommy Gregory in the District 73 primary against Lakewood Ranch business owner Melissa Howard.

The NRA seal of approval is highly coveted in Republican primaries. Gregory also was endorsed by the Unified Sportsmen of Florida. The executive director of Unified Sportsmen, Marion Hammer, is the past president of the NRA and one of the most influential lobbyists in Tallahassee.

“We sincerely appreciate your strong support of the Second Amendment,” Hammer wrote in a letter to Gregory.

Howard also is playing up her support for gun rights. She recently posted a picture of herself on Facebook holding a shotgun.

“One of the many shotguns I own,” she wrote. “Lifelong NRA member and I have had my Concealed Carry permit for years!”

Events

–The Republican Club of South Sarasota County meets at 11:30 a.m. Wednesday at the Venice Gardens Civic Association, 406 Shamrock Blvd. in Venice. Candidates for a range of offices will participate in an open house. The meeting is open to the public.

–The Sarasota County Democratic Party meets at 7 p.m. Wednesday at Sarasota County Fire Department Station 2, 2070 Waldemere St. in Sarasota. The meeting is open to the public.

–The Republican Party of Sarasota executive committee meets at 6 p.m. Thursday at the Shannon Staub Library, 4675 Career Lane in North Port. State Rep. Julio Gonzalez, state Sen. Greg Steube and Bill Akin will participate in a candidate forum for the District 17 congressional race. The meeting is open to the public.

This article provided by NewsEdge.