Duke Energy's donations pay off in Florida governor's race

Florida Gov. Rick Scott's successful re-election effort got a boost from Duke Energy, which contributed generously to the Republican Governors Association that in turn gave millions of dollars to an outside group that backed Scott.

Duke Energy, the nation's largest utility company, has been a major funder of a national group that bought thousands of ads to help elect Republican governors in South Carolina and Ohio. But in Florida, where the North Carolina-based company also does business, the group gave millions to an independent political committee and to the Florida Republican Party, both of which helped the Republican incumbent governor retain his seat.

As Facing South recently reported, Duke Energy donated $2 million to the Republican Governors Association (RGA) in October of last year, by far the largest contribution out of North Carolina to the Washington, D.C.-based political advocacy group in at least four years. Along with two other donations, the energy giant gave the RGA at least $2.75 million in 2014. Together with its Progress Energy subsidiary, Duke has given the RGA over $3.4 million since 2011.

The RGA used its considerable war chest to help GOP gubernatorial candidates in 18 states, spending over $29 million on mostly negative television ads targeting their opponents. In South Carolina and Ohio, two states where Duke Energy does business, the RGA spent more than $2.8 million on ads that helped re-elect Republican Governors Nikki Haley and John Kasich, whose challengers both supported renewable energy.

In Florida the RGA didn't spend directly on ads, but it pumped millions of dollars into the state that ultimately helped incumbent GOP Gov. Rick Scott fend off his Democratic opponent, former Gov. Charlie Crist. As of late September, according to the Center for Public Integrity, the RGA had given $9 million during the 2014 election cycle to Scott's independent political committee, Let's Get To Work, which spent $10.8 million on ads supporting Scott since November 2013.

Florida has some of the least restrictive political spending laws in the nation, allowing coordination between candidates and outside groups such as Let's Get To Work, committees that are not formally affiliated with campaigns. Candidates can even raise money for and contribute directly to these outside groups. Candidates may also coordinate with their party when campaigning, as Crist did with the Florida Democratic Party; his independent committee gave at least $9.7 million to the state party, which spent nearly $27 million on ads in his support. This total includes some ads that supported Crist's running mate, lieutenant governor candidate Annette Taddeo.

Duke Energy has given at least $600,000 directly to Let's Get To Work since 2012. The RGA gave $225,000 to the Florida Republican Party in December 2013, and the party gave almost $3.5 million to Scott's campaign, while spending close to $48 million on ads benefiting Scott.

Big energy supported Scott over Crist, who was known for his consumer-friendly appointees to the state's Public Service Commission, which rules on utility rate increases and will play a role in determining how the state will approach reducing carbon emissions.

Scott, who was behind in the polls leading up to the election, squeaked out a one-point victory over Crist, a margin of about 66,000 votes.