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opinion

Margaret Wente has been travelling though Florida as part of The Globe and Mail's coverage of next week's U.S. midterm elections.

It would be hard to find a more disagreeable politician than Rick Scott, the Republican governor of Florida, who's fighting for re-election next week. He strikes people as secretive and robotic. His wild-eyed, shaven-headed visage is the stuff of satire, and even his supporters admit his people skills are beyond redemption.

Charlie Crist, Mr. Scott's opponent, is a glad-handing schmoozer with a silver head of hair and an eerie spray-on tan. Although his people skills are better, he's no more popular than Mr. Scott. The electorate can't stand either of them.

Florida will soon be the third-most populous state in America, so what happens here matters. And what's happened here is ugly. The governor's race is possibly the nastiest and definitely the most expensive gubernatorial contest of all time, in any state. The candidates are spending $50-million on attack ads, bathing the voters in non-stop bile. And there's plenty to dislike about them both.

Mr. Scott, a self-made millionaire, made his fortune at a health-care company called Columbia/HCA, which he built into the largest in America. He was forced out after it was investigated for massive Medicare fraud (it wound up paying a $1.7-billion fine). Then he went into politics, spending $75-million of his own money to pave the way to the governor's office. He has been accused of rescheduling an execution because it conflicted with a party fundraiser. His opponents call him "too shady for the Sunshine Coast."

Mr. Crist is a political retread who was governor before Mr. Scott. In those days, he was a Republican. Then he quit to run for the Senate as an independent. He lost, but now he's running for governor again as a Democrat. His opponents call him a "flip-flopper" and the voters don't trust him.

Florida is a prime example of the toothlessness of modern U.S. campaign finance laws. Florida's law puts strict limits on the amount of money that can be contributed directly to a political candidate, but there's no limit on contributions to "independent" political committees, which actually work in tandem with the candidates. And so the outside money flows in. The two candidates are spending a staggering $150-million between them. (Sixteen years ago, Jeb Bush won the governor's race by spending a record $12-million.) They are now far more beholden to outside interests than to the political parties that nominally control the process.

Mr. Scott's campaign is getting millions from the conservative Koch brothers, who have far-flung petroleum and manufacturing interests. They back candidates who want to reduce government involvement in the private sector, and they're implacably opposed to regulations aimed at fighting climate change. Environmentalists warn that rising seas may flood low-lying Miami, but the Kochs' candidate is unconcerned. Asked about his views on climate change, he replied, "I'm not a scientist."

Mr. Crist is a staunch environmentalist. He's promising that if elected, he'll reduce carbon emissions with a cap-and-trade scheme. It's no coincidence that his campaign is getting millions from Tom Steyer, the liberal billionaire from California who opposes the Keystone pipeline and is dedicated to fighting climate change by backing candidates of his choice. Mr. Scott's war chest is twice as big as Mr. Crist's, but that doesn't alter the fundamental fact that Florida's race, as New York Times reporter Jim Rutenberg recently wrote, is really a battle between billionaire oligarchs.

The high (or low) point of the campaign came a couple of weeks ago, when the two sides engaged in a backstage tussle over a small black fan, which Mr. Crist takes with him everywhere. (It's Florida, and he hates to sweat.) Mr. Crist wanted the fan beneath his lectern during a TV debate. Mr. Scott's side claimed the fan was illegal. Mr. Scott was so fussed that he declined to appear on stage. Common sense eventually prevailed, but not before he'd made himself look like an idiot.

Even so, next Tuesday's race is way too close to call. It's safe to say that whoever wins, the big loser will be democracy. The overwhelming influence of outside money in politics shows how the United States has mutated from a democratic system to an oligarchy, in which the vast majority of citizens may have a vote, but no longer have a say. As goes Florida, so goes the nation.