Editor's note: The numbers in this article and accompanying charts were drawn from the Federal Election Commission and the Washington State Public Disclosure Commission last week. The most current numbers, released today, do not change the overall accuracy of the article.
When it comes to the races for U.S. Senate and governor, Washington’s Republican donors are less enthusiastic this year than in any election in at least the past decade, according to an analysis of campaign financial records.
While the results from Tuesday’s primary may change things, fundraising numbers to this point suggest that state Republican donors are largely sitting this year out.
“There’s a general sense among Republican big donors that if (former state Attorney General) Rob McKenna couldn’t get elected governor, how could (gubernatorial candidate) Bill Bryant or Chris Vance win?” says Vance, the former chair of the state Republican Party and current candidate for U.S. Senate, running against longtime incumbent Patty Murray.
Vance has raised about $128,000, compared to Murray’s war chest of $4.1 million.
“To a lot of people, all they see is (former gubernatorial candidate Dino) Rossi lost, McKenna lost, and they don’t look any closer than that,” Vance says. “Lots of donors were told Rossi would win, and now they’re done. We knew they wouldn’t be back until we started winning. … People with a long history of donating to Republican party aren’t taking my calls.”
In an article last week, I noted that Donald Trump donors in Washington are a very unenthusiastic bunch. Very few expressed strong support for Trump, citing anti-Hillary Clinton sentiment as the main reason for their donations. Most did not even want their name associated with the candidate. Among donors who have ponied up at least $200, Trump has raised roughly half of what Mitt Romney had by this point in 2012.
Vance denounced Trump publicly back in May. For months, Bryant has consistently refused to say whether he supports Trump or will vote for him in November.
Susan Hutchison, chairman of the state Republican party, says she is unconcerned about the lack of support by Bryant and Vance for their party’s national standard bearer, and doesn’t believe ambivalence toward Trump is a factor in statewide fundraising.
“I heard a quote a few months ago, that money in politics is a coward,” says Hutchison. “It always goes to strengths. If money were not a coward, it’d pick the races it most wants to win. But people invest where they think they can win, in the strength of candidate and their campaign. People take a look at what’s going on, and invest where they think there’s a return.”
Asked if this means Republican donors don’t think the party can win the races for governor and senator, she focuses her comments on Bryant.
“Every donor I know is getting behind Bryant,” says Hutchison. “Donors believe we can definitely win the governor’s race, because we have dangerously incompetent governor. ... I haven’t polled every donor, but the major ones are going to do their part, just as they’ve done in the past.”
Bryant has raised less than half of what McKenna had at this point in 2012 — $2.5 million to $7.2 million —and numerous big donors to McKenna’s campaign are backing Inslee this year, including the American Beverage Association, Delta Dental of Washington, and the political action committee of the Washington State Auto Dealers.
Bryant’s campaign asserts things are going according to plan on fundraising. “We are going to be spending $3 million in primary, which is on track with our plan, running a tight ship and a lean campaign,” says Bryant communication director Yvette Ollada.
Past statements from the campaign, however, indicate fundraising goals are being missed. In a radio interview in March, Bryant said he wanted to raise $10 million in the early part of this year, before the primary.
“Our budget is $10 (million),” said Bryant. “We're (budgeting) a little bit less than Rob McKenna (raised in his campaign), and that's just because we're hoping to raise $10 million earlier in the year. We think that if we can have the money earlier, we can spend it more effectively than raising a bunch of money at the very end and just buying more TV commercials, throwing more commercials up on the air.”
Last December, Bryant’s campaign manager Justin Matheson said the campaign hoped to close the fundraising gap between Bryant and Inslee before the end of March. “Our goal is to make up the difference,” Matheson said.
Bryant’s campaign is entering the general election with about $446,000 cash on hand, according to their last pre-primary financial report. McKenna entered the 2012 general election with $3.3 million on hand. Rossi entered the 2008 general election against sitting governor Christine Gregoire with $2.6 million on hand.
As to how they’re staying competitive with limited budgets, Senate candidate Vance says he set fundraising goals that were “far less ambitious” than those found in previous statewide campaigns, believing the internet has changed how voters can be reached without any big spending.
A reliance on new models is not a major part of the equation for Bryant’s campaign. Asked about the fundraising deficit, Ollada focuses her comments on the amount of television ads the campaign has put on the air.
“What matters in campaigns is getting the message out,” Ollada says. “We’re not running a fundraising campaign. We’re running for governor. ... We’re not worried about any lack of enthusiasm. We wanted to make sure television got funded, and we accomplished that. We’ve got three ads up.”
Hutchison believes some donors are taking a wait-and-see approach, waiting for primary results before deciding whether to invest. If Bryant or Vance show traction against their well-established rivals, this could inspire previously skittish donors to enter the fray, she says — and history bears her out. She also believes donors may be divvying their money up between statewide races and local Republican candidates more than usual, a subject I will be examining in coming weeks.
“All of these races are competitive races,” says Hutchison. “Washington is a swing state, not a blue state. … People in Seattle live in a bubble of left-wing propaganda. The Dems in Seattle are establishment, status quo, and they listen to one another. They’re committing the same mistakes the establishment has for a while, and that’s not listening to the voters. I think they’re going to be surprised by what voters do this year.”
This may be the case. But if Republican primary voters show the same level of enthusiasm as donors to this point, it could be a long year ahead for the state party, a fact Vance acknowledges.
“Voter turnout’s going to be terrible this year,” Vance says. “This whole election is insane. … We’re off the map now, there’s no playbook for this. It’s unknowable.”
Disclosure: The author was Patty Murray’s King County field director in 2010. He has not worked in party politics since then.