Disputed Fla. House race most expensive ever


Published: Friday, January 19, 2007 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Thursday, January 18, 2007 at 11:05 p.m.

SARASOTA — The disputed race to fill Florida's 13th Congressional District last year was the most expensive U.S. House contest in history, spurring calls for limits on campaign spending.

Republican Vern Buchanan, Democrat Christine Jennings and the other candidates who ran to fill the seat vacated by Katherine Harris spent about $13.1 million during the course of the race — breaking a previous record by more than $1 million, the Sarasota Herald-Tribune reported Thursday.

The old record of $11.6 million was set in West Virginia in 2002.

"It shows how broken the system is," said Mary Boyle, a spokeswoman for Common Cause, a Washington-based group that is lobbying for campaign finance reforms.

Buchanan put up nearly $8.1 million — $5.4 million of it his own — to win a crowded primary and eke out a 368-vote win over Jennings in November. Jennings has contested the race in state court and with the U.S. House, claiming an unusually high number of people who skipped that race was the result of a voting machine malfunction.

Buchanan was sworn in as the district representative this month, but Congress is investigating the vote tally. State auditors also are wrapping up an audit of the ATM-style touch-screen voting machines.

Campaign finance reports show Jennings spent $2.7 million. Buchanan's Republican rival, Tramm Hudson, spent $1.5 million. The final campaign spending reports are scheduled to come in over the next few weeks.

"I am shocked," Jennings said. "I think it is wrong. When you look at all the needs in District 13, it is just out of hand."

Buchanan, a multimillionaire car dealer, said negative attacks forced him to spend a lot on advertising, both to repair his image and hammer his opponents.

Voter ire at negative ads from both parties has been cited as one possible reason more than 18,000 Sarasota County voters skipped the congressional contest, but voted in other races on Nov. 7.

Craig Holman, a lobbyist for the campaign spending reform group Public Citizen, said he plans to cite the race in his push to get Congress to limit campaign spending.

"Momentum is growing," Holman said. "I've never seen it like this."

But Larry Sabato, a political expert at the University of Virginia, said reform is unlikely.

"The only limit is what the market can bear," Sabato said.

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