Campaign finance expert Edwin Bender can point to 5,200 reasons why North Carolina’s state legislative races are so often blah affairs with little mystery in the outcomes.
That's the number of dollars individuals and political action committees can contribute to state House of Representative and Senate candidates for each race — up to $10,400 for a cycle that includes both a primary and a general election.
The candidate who raises the most money usually goes home with the victory and that is almost always the incumbent in state Houses and Senates nationwide, said Bender, executive director of the nonprofit National Institute on Money in State Politics.
“We basically have a system that is not designed to create competition,” said Bender, whose group is based in Helena, Mont., and operates the www.followthemoney.org website where visitors can track the interaction between the big bucks and state officeholders.
“An incumbent once he or she is in office, you can usually see that there is a handful of people who are providing boatloads of cash for them,” Bender said.
The two state Senate races for districts totally contained in Guilford County, are a case in point, illustrated by the graphic below:
Incumbent state Sens. Gladys Robinson (D-Greensboro) and Trudy Wade (R-Greensboro) are comfortably ahead of their opposing-party challengers, according to their most recent campaign finance reports.
As of June 30, Robinson had raised $35,043 compared to less than $2,000 by her GOP challenger, Clark Porter of Greensboro.
Wade also had a sizeable lead on Democratic foe and fellow Greensboro resident Michael Garrett, outdoing him with more than $163,000 cash on hand against his roughly $90,000.
The Wade-Garrett contest is a rematch of their 2016 encounter and of this year’s two, all-Guilford Senate races, it promises to be the more competitive. Two years ago, Wade beat first-time state legislative candidate Garrett with 53 percent of the vote.
She had much more cash than Garrett in that 2016 contest, attracting almost $600,000 to her campaign account versus his nest egg of about $150,000. That was in an environment where research by Bender’s group shows that the North Carolina legislative candidate with the fatter campaign checkbook wins the general election 89 percent of the time.
And when a top North Carolina money raiser also is an incumbent, the success rate jumps to 96 percent, according to the institute's analysis of the state's 2016 races for General Assembly seats.
In fact, of the state’s 170 legislative races two years ago — 120 House and 50 Senate seats — only 17 played out in competitive, general elections where candidates were closely matched in both campaign money and vote-getting abilities, Bender said in a recent telephone interview.
Of the eight state House and Senate races wholly contained within Guilford County, only three actually ended in contested November 2016 general elections: In the other five, the incumbent faced no opposition.
Besides the Wade victory among Guilford’s trio of contested 2016 state legislative races, Robinson won hers with 84 percent of the vote and state Rep. Jon Hardister (R-Whitsett) corralled 60 percent of the ballots in his district.
Bender’s institute that tracks races for state offices nationwide gave all three Guilford County general election races an overall rating of “uncompetitive,” a judgment based on the combination of each candidate’s success at fundraising and how they did in the final tally at the ballot box.
For the six House districts that collectively span Guilford County, fundraising this year is mostly following the incumbent-on-top pattern except in House District 62, where June 30 campaign reports to the state Board of Elections and Ethics Enforcement show Democrat challenger Martha Shafer of Summerfield receiving nearly $148,000 in contributions compared to about $12,300 for the Republican incumbent, state Rep. John Faircloth of High Point.
And in the newly revised House District 57 across much of northern Greensboro — where an open seat exists this time around — Democrat hopeful Ashton Clemmons of Greensboro received $129,100 in contributions, more than 10 times greater than those reported by the GOP candidate, Troy Lawson, also a Greensboro resident.
At the state Senate level, new voting maps for 2018 include parts of Guilford in Senate districts 24 and 26, but District 24 encompasses all of Alamance County and District 26 has Randolph County as its anchor. So Wade’s and Robinson’s districts, 27 and 28, respectively, are the only ones that are centered in Guilford County.
Wade declined a request from the News & Record for an interview about her approach to campaign financing, saying in a written response Saturday that "I do not discuss our campaign strategy."
"But I can tell you people all across the district and all of Guilford County are excited about the direction we have taken the state since 2011," Wade said, referring to the year Republicans took control of the legislative branch.
Democrat Sen. Robinson said that fundraising is a necessary burden because it’s a costly proposition to run any campaign. The candidate needs yard signs, research and polling, flyers and other material to hand out to voters in the weeks leading up to an election, she said.
Robinson said that when political action committees make contributions to her campaign, such as the Anesthesiologists of the Triad or the state Beer and Wine Wholesalers have done this year, she does not believe they are currying favor. Rather, they are endorsing her views and approach to a variety of issues such as health care and education, she said.
“People know my record and they know how I have voted,” she said. “I think that’s what happens when people support me, they look at my record.”
In a brief telephone conversation last week, her GOP opponent Porter said he believed he would be able to mount a credible challenge in the coming campaign, but declined further comment.
Garrett said he believed that his 2016 candidacy was hindered by the large gap between the campaign money he was able to raise and Wade’s more successful fundraising effort.
But he also said that he did not know whether the dollar gap was as big a factor as his sense that the presidential race that year usurped much of the average voter’s attention and put the focus more on national matters than on the local topics that legislative races really should be about.
Even so, Garrett said his campaign is doing a much better job of keeping the gap in fundraising narrower this time around.
“If you can’t close the fundraising gap, you’re going to have to give up some things like television ads, social media campaigns and mailings,” he said.
The Wade campaign raised its money this year from fewer contributors who gave larger amounts than was the case for either Garrett’s or Robinson’s efforts. And her receipts came more obviously from executives in such industries as real estate and development, transportation and energy.
But a direct, precise comparison was hampered by the fact that Wade’s campaign report provided detailed and specific employment information about her contributors while Garrett’s at times used more opaque language, such as “civic leader” or “business owner,” to describe his donors' occupations.
It's pretty clear that corporate and professional PACs are a significant source of campaign money when election time rolls around, especially for incumbents.
For example, in March, the Duke Energy Corp. PAC divvied up about $225,000 among 87 state legislators from both parties, but gave to more Republicans, according to the PAC's first-quarter disclosure report to state election officials. The power company PAC’s average contribution to the North Carolina officeholders was $2,600.
Among Guilford legislators benefiting from the Duke PAC’s distribution this spring, $4,000 went to Wade’s campaign committee, $3,000 to Hardister's, $2,000 to Faircloth’s and $1,000 to Robinson’s, the lone Guilford Democrat on the list.
Still, individual contributors remain the backbone of campaign finance, such people as philanthropist and supporter of environmental causes Fred Stanback.
An heir to the Stanback headache-powder fortune, the Salisbury resident emerged this year as one of the larger-dollar contributors to Guilford Democratic candidates seeking legislative seats.
Stanback contributed $5,200 to both Garrett and to the re-election campaign of Rep. Pricey Harrison, D-Greensboro, who is known for her interest in environmental issues. He also gave $5,000 to Shafer's campaign for the District 62 seat, bringing his total contribution to Guilford legislative candidates to $15,400.
In a short interview last week, Stanback said he did not want to discuss how he decides to give what amount to which candidates. But he linked his impulse to contribute with the environment.
“The legislature has made a lot of bad environmental decisions, in my opinion,” he said. “And I was thinking that some different people might do a better job.”
A desire for good government and for policies in Raleigh that will help foster growth in High Point motivated business lawyer Brian Gavigan to contribute $3,500 to the Wade campaign this year, said High Point resident Gavigan.
“I love my city and I’m very intent on supporting people who have a high regard for High Point and its people,” said Gavigan, who said that he also had contributed $500 to Democrat Shafer’s campaign.
“I get no tax deduction or dividend from this,” he said of his contributions. “You’re just trying to help get someone elected who you think is going to do a good job.”
But from the perspective of reform-oriented Bender at the money-in-politics group, it would be better if fewer people such as Gavigan and Stanback had to dig so deeply into their pockets every couple of years to finance political campaigns.
His group supports lowering the ceiling on campaign contributions into the range of several hundred dollars per election, possibly backed by some type of public financing that would encourage a wider diversity of candidates.
“States with lower contribution limits will see more people donating and they will see more competitive elections,” said Bender, who describes his group’s mission as part of “the infrastructure for a healthy democracy.”
The end game of lower contribution limits is forcing candidates to interact more directly with the people whose votes they’re seeking, he said.
“It’s an incentive for the candidate to go out and talk to more people.”