Game over: Carlos Beruff pulls the plug on TV ads a month before primary

by | Aug 6, 2016

“You’ve got to know when to hold ’em, know when to fold ’em, know when to walk away, and know when to run,” as the song goes, and it looks like Florida Senate candidate Carlos Beruff has decided it’s time to fold ’em and run away. After dropping millions of dollars out of his own pocket in his first attempt at elected office, he suddenly cut off all spending on broadcast and cable television ads this week.

Based on publicly reported data on statewide media buys, Beruff’s last ad placements aired last Tuesday, August 2, and he has not bought any new ads since then.

When Beruff first entered the race, the Republican field was crowded. Lt. Gov. Carlos Lopez-Cantera, Rep. David Jolly, Rep. Ron DeSantis, and former CIA operative Todd Wilcox all had certain constituencies and areas of the state where they drew support, but none were able to break out as the clear front-runner. Beruff went up early with television ads, blanketing the airwaves statewide and establishing his name recognition well enough to become a contender.

But everything changed when Sen. Marco Rubio decided to run for re-election. Rubio had been supporting his close friend Lopez-Cantera, helping him fundraise and planning to roll out an official endorsement, but after the shooting at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, Lopez-Cantera encouraged Rubio to reconsider running for re-election, citing the need to keep Florida’s Senate seat in Republican hands.

When Rubio got back in, the other Republican candidates all stepped aside and endorsed him, except for Beruff. Jolly and DeSantis filed to run for re-election to their Congressional districts. Lopez-Cantera and Wilcox also both dropped out of the race and have been not just vocal supporters of Rubio, but sharp critics of Beruff as well.

Beruff has fired back, continuing to attack Rubio in interviews and ads. But all his effort and and all his money have had virtually no impact. Rubio’s name recognition and long-standing relationships with Republican activists around the state, plus his support across the board from the NRSC and other Republican leadership, have left Beruff gasping for air.

Beruff’s years of ties to former Governor (and former Republican) Charlie Crist didn’t help his cause. His attempts to paint himself as the Donald Trump of the Senate race — as a wealthy businessman not beholden to any donors or political parties  — also fell flat. No matter how loudly Beruff has praised Trump or attacked Rubio for keeping his distance from the Republican presidential nominee, he’s gotten no love back from Trump. Trump must realize that his chances of winning Florida are stronger with Rubio on the ticket, and he has repeatedly said positive things about Rubio as a Senate candidate, but has never tweeted once about Beruff or mentioned him at all.

As The Capitolist reported, a poll in late June showed Rubio winning 71 percent to Beruff’s 7 percent. This humiliating poll result didn’t just show Rubio leaving Beruff in the dust, Beruff was also nearly within the margin of error of two fringe candidates who had spent no money at all. Other polls taken since Rubio got back in the race have showed a similarly steep margin.

Still, Beruff has remained adamant that he could win the race, insisting in media interviews that he could win, that he was willing to spend $15 million or more of his own money to win the primary, and continuing to viciously attack Rubio. We at The Capitolist were far from the only ones to speculate that Beruff was not actually campaigning for the 2016 Senate race, but was really intending to set himself up for a future statewide race, perhaps the 2018 Governor’s race (which will be an open seat), or the 2018 Senate race to challenge current Democratic Sen. Bill Nelson.

All together, Beruff has spent just under $6.5 million so far on broadcast and cable television ads statewide. This dwarfs the total amount spent by all Democratic candidates and PACs. Rep. Patrick Murphy has spent just over $3.4 million, the Senate Majority PAC (Sen. Minority Leader Harry Reid‘s PAC, supporting Murphy) has spent just over $1.1 million, Rep. Alan Grayson has spent almost $700,000, and Floridians for a Strong Middle Class (a pro-Murphy PAC) has spent more than $500,000.

On the Republican side, television buys include $1.7 million spent by American Future Fund (a conservative, pro-free market (c)4 organization that is supporting Rubio), almost $1.6 million by the Senate Leadership Fund (Sen. Majority Leader Mitch McConnell‘s PAC, also supporting Rubio), $1.5 million in coordinated spending by the NRSC and the Rubio campaign, $1.4 million by the Florida First Project (a pro-Rubio PAC that’s taken swipes at both Beruff and Murphy), $1.4 million by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce (supporting Rubio), just under $500,000 by the American Chemistry Council (supporting Rubio), and an additional $45,000 by the NRSC.

While Beruff has cancelled his television ads, Rubio is ramping up. Just looking at the spending by his campaign and the NRSC, they added nearly $500,000 in new broadcast television ads for the period from July 28 through August 8, including over $100,00 for Orlando and nearly $300,00 for Tampa, showing a focus in building up a base in the I-4 corridor area that will be critical during November’s general election.

Additionally, Rubio and the NRSC spent over $300,000 on cable ads spots during this period, placing ads on networks that include Fox News Channel, Fox Business, ESPN, the Golf Channel, the Food Network, TNT, and USA.

Rubio’s campaign has also been rolling out announcements about grassroots leadership teams in key areas around the state, comprised of elected officials, Republican leaders, and other conservative activists well-known in their communities.

The short story is that Marco Rubio is in it to win it, putting together a ground game and media strategy to keep Florida’s Senate seat in Republican hands this November, while Carlos Beruff has made a lot of noise and burned through a pile of his own cash, with very little to show for it.

Time to fold 'em, Carlos.

Time to fold ’em, Carlos.

Florida’s primary election is August 30. Absentee ballots have already been mailed and early voting starts August 20.

UPDATE: Beruff spokesman Chris Hartline posted on Twitter on Sunday morning that this story was “false,” but has offered no proof. Television ad buys are a black-and-white issue: time is either purchased or it is not. The Capitolist was provided with statewide media ad buy data for the Florida Senate race and it showed the Beruff campaign went dark after August 2. If the Beruff campaign provides evidence that they purchased ad time after that, we’ll update the story.

UPDATE #2: Hartline emailed The Capitolist and promised that we’ll be proven wrong tomorrow. So are they putting in a new ad buy for next week? This still doesn’t change the fact that they went dark during a critical week less than a month before the primary, just when absentee ballots are hitting mailboxes. Beruff has already burned through $6.5 million on TV ads that have failed to improve his polls much past two candidates who have literally spent zero dollars on ads. If he wants to send good money after bad, that’s his business.

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UPDATE #3: See Brian Burgess’ article on the latest news about Beruff’s ad buys and why we are not changing this headline.

Follow Sarah Rumpf on Twitter: @rumpfshaker.

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