Florida Senate candidates, at least on the Republican side, are starved for cash and attention: The presidential campaigns of Jeb Bush and Marco Rubio have “bled the state dry” financially speaking, according to one Florida Republican operative.
And no one has suffered more from this state of affairs than Florida’s Republican political establishment, which has struggled to anoint a candidate who can outraise Representative Ron DeSantis. A tea-party favorite, DeSantis already has the backing of casino magnate Steve Wynn and Chicago Cubs owner Joe Ricketts.
Carlos Beruff, a multimillionaire developer from Manatee County, could prove to be the establishment’s lifeline. A longtime Republican donor, Beruff, 58, is set to jump into the race on February 29, according to multiple sources familiar with the businessman’s planning. In a year when outsider candidates have proven their electoral appeal, Beruff’s lack of political experience — he has none — could prove an asset. He’s rumored to have $15 million on hand already, well more than the $2.5 million DeSantis has in the bank, which could make for another competitive Republican primary in the Sunshine State. In the last one, in 2010, Marco Rubio drove former Florida governor Charlie Crist out of the Republican party before defeating him in the general election.
“Ron’s fundraising advantage is cut overnight by Carlos’s entrance,” says Joe Gruters, chairman of the Sarasota Republican party. “Carlos can write a check right now and double whatever Ron has in the bank.” Gruters, who says he recently had lunch with Beruff, has been neutral in the race so far, though he remains equivocal. “We’ll see what happens.”
Sources say Beruff was drawn into the race by the political strategists at OnMessage, Inc., the consulting firm that counts Florida governor Rick Scott among its clients. The team at On Message says he knocked on their door. When Scott entered the gubernatorial race in 2010, he was deemed the “unicorn” of Florida politics — the late entrant self-funding his campaign. And that’s precisely the model that Beruff’s team plans to replicate.
OnMessage’s Joanna Burgos says her team was drawn to Beruff’s “compelling story.” He’s a Miami native who dropped out of college to dabble in the home-building sphere. After years developing his company, Medallion Home, he landed the plum positions he holds today, including a recent leadership post on the governor’s hospital commission and a seat on the State College of Florida Board of Trustees.
With his ties to such circles, flush with high-profile donors, Beruff, his team predicts, has the relationships he needs with people who can quickly cut him checks. Coupled with his own money, that fundraising prowess could easily propel Beruff ahead of other DeSantis challengers such as Lieutenant Governor Carlos Lopez-Cantera, Representative David Jolly, and former CIA operative Todd Wilcox, who each raised less than $400,000 in the fourth quarter of 2015.
Many generous Florida donors are depleted from the Rubio and Bush campaigns, so it’s too early to make predictions based solely on cash.
From a fundraising standpoint, DeSantis currently has the contest locked up. But one Republican operative aligned with Lopez-Cantera emphasizes that many generous Florida donors are depleted from the Rubio and Bush campaigns, so it’s too early to make predictions based solely on cash. The operative also cautions against overstating Beruff’s wealth: “Beruff will try to chart a course like the governor did, but the problem is that he just doesn’t have Scott’s money.” For the 2016 cycle, four Republican operatives estimate that a candidate needs $20 million to $30 million to be competitive.
Nonetheless, mere whispers of Beruff’s candidacy earlier this month drove others, including DeSantis, to issue statements denouncing the businessman, an early sign of Beruff’s strength. They seized in particular on his past support for Crist. “It’s a free country, but if Carlos enters the race for Senate, he’ll soon find out the same way his friend Charlie Crist did that grassroots Florida conservatives have long memories,” DeSantis campaign manager Brad Herold said.
It’s hardly striking for a Florida Republican to have a Crist donation on his résumé. But DeSantis has lambasted Beruff for maintaining his support for Crist in the 2010 race even after Crist left the GOP, rather than throwing his weight behind Rubio. DeSantis’s team points to a 2010 article from the Herald-Tribune, which reported that “those standing behind Crist” as an Independent candidate “include . . . Bradenton developer Carlos Beruff.” And FEC filings at the time show that while several Republicans requested and received refunds of their Crist donations following his party switch, Beruff did not.
Thursday morning, DeSantis’s campaign doubled down on that angle, launching a microsite — CharlieCristRepublican.com — to “highlight Carlos Beruff’s record.”
It could prove to be a potent line of attack. “Charlie is not loved by Republicans in the state,” says Florida GOP operative Rick Wilson, who runs a super PAC aligned with Lopez-Cantera. “In fact, he is loathed. You’ll see candidates go after that angle very vigorously.”
OnMessage’s Burgos says she isn’t concerned. “Everyone in Florida knows how terrible it was to support Charlie,” she says. “Beruff was fooled by Charlie just like everyone else was.”
DeSantis’s team spins Beruff’s late entry into the race as a positive that will provide him with a much-needed “foil,” in the words of DeSantis campaign manager Herold. After picking up the high-profile nods from casino magnate Wynn and Cubs owner Ricketts, along with the support of Nevada attorney general Adam Laxalt, DeSantis has mostly coasted since his announcement last May. He’s built a profile centered on grassroots conservatism, with endorsements from the Club for Growth and tea-party heavyweights such as Utah senator Mike Lee.
“The money and the support from places like Club for Growth make DeSantis the front-runner,” says Evan Power, the Leon County GOP chair, who remains unaffiliated in the race.
And Power, while stressing that Beruff will be an “immediate player” in the primary, says that his candidacy could in fact be a boon to DeSantis by dividing establishment backers between himself and Lopez-Cantera. “Lopez-Cantera had the perception that he was the ‘governor’s candidate,’” he says. “Beruff could fracture that support and allow DeSantis to continue to claim the conservative lane by himself.”
A culmination of factors — cash fluctuations, split allegiances, and a messy presidential cycle — makes the field at once crowded and wide open.
It’s a culmination of factors — cash fluctuations, split allegiances, and a messy presidential cycle — that makes the field at once crowded and wide open. Whisper campaigns have already mounted for other self-funders, such as former ambassador to the Holy See Francis Rooney, a prominent Right to Rise donor who recently endorsed Marco Rubio. “It’s the nature of this cycle — there’s just not enough money going around, so suddenly you’re seeing these big donors saying, ‘Well, I might as well give it a shot,’” says Sarasota GOP chairman Gruters.
The question now is whether Beruff can capitalize on that window of opportunity, and whether DeSantis can continue to compete.
“Nobody in this race needs to get too comfortable until after March 15,” says one Lopez-Cantera-allied Republican operative, referring to the date of the Florida presidential primary. “That’s when the big money will start flowing. That’s when this gets sporty.”
— Elaina Plott is a William F. Buckley Fellow in Political Journalism at the National Review Institute.
EDITOR’s NOTE: This piece has been modified since its original posting.