September 9, 2008 in City

Empty races fill war chests

Campaign funds for candidates running unopposed can go many places
Richard Roesler Staff writer
 

OLYMPIA – In Ritzville, Republican state Sen. Mark Schoesler has amassed an impressive $123,000 in campaign donations in his run for re-election.

Over in Bothell, Democratic Rep. Mark Ericks has raised $131,000.

Down in Walla Walla, Senate Minority Leader Mike Hewitt’s drawn nearly $200,000.

What do these state lawmakers have in common, besides their big campaign war chests?

None has an opponent.

Across the state, the two dozen Washington legislators running unopposed for re-election this year have raised more than $1.8 million.

That number grows considerably if you also factor in the legislators with only token opposition. Veteran Senate Majority Leader Lisa Brown, for example, drew $214,000 in contributions. Her opponent: political novice John Moyna, a night janitor at Dick’s hamburgers. Brown outpolled him more than 3 to 1 in August’s primary.

Where much of the money ends up helps illustrate something that can be easy to forget when greeting a lone candidate ringing your doorbell: that politics is a team sport. And the check you write to your local lawmaker may end up paying for yard signs or radio ads hundreds of miles away.

Legislative historian Don Brazier takes a dim view of the process.

“I think it ought to be outlawed,” he said. It’s wrong, he argues, to allow lawmakers in safe seats to raise a lot of money and shuttle it to others.

At Western Washington University, political science professor Todd Donovan sees the cash-shifting as pragmatic politics.

“The bottom line is that there just aren’t that many competitive races, and the money will go to those competitive races,” said Donovan.

With two to four years between elections, state lawmakers can stockpile donations for years in case a strong challenger emerges.

Schoesler says that’s exactly what he was preparing for. He points to the 2006 race between then-Sen. Brad Benson, R-Spokane, and Democratic challenger Chris Marr.

“The district hadn’t elected a Democrat in more than 70 years, but when they had an extremely well-funded Democrat, the Democrat won,” said Schoesler. “Be prepared.”

And so, Schoesler said, he aggressively raised money until the filing period for candidates was over. When the dust settled, he had no opponent. At that point, he said, he stopped holding fundraisers.

In such cases, candidates can save the money for a future campaign, give it back or even pay themselves earnings they lost because of their state lawmaker duties. They can give it to charity – Sen. Bob McCaslin, R-Spokane Valley, has done so repeatedly – or set up a special account to pay for office supplies, artwork and the like.

They also can donate the cash to the state treasury, but a computerized scan of eight years of campaign finance records by the state Public Disclosure Commission was unable to turn up a single instance of that happening.

In many cases, the money ends up going to the state political parties or to four “caucus committees” run by House Democrats, House Republicans, Senate Democrats and Senate Republicans. The groups then decide which races will get the money. Candidates must wait until after the election to transfer the money, but it’s common for donors to give money for both the November election and the August primary. Once the August primary’s over, that unused money can be used to help other candidates with their November races.

“The caucuses are an integral part of the political process,” said Schoesler. “They support candidates.”

Also, donating to them doesn’t hurt a lawmaker’s clout among his or her peers.

“People are going to know ‘OK, this guy was really a heavyweight for the party,’ ” said Donovan. That translates into higher “stature as a player, as somebody who is doing the good-citizen work for the party.”

For leaders like Brown and Hewitt, raising money to help legislative colleagues is expected, he said.

The checks, Donovan said, are almost automatic. Many interest groups – trade associations, labor unions and corporations – use donations simply to stay on lawmakers’ radar.

“If you’re the wheat growers or the eye doctors or whatever, you’re giving to every incumbent on every side of the aisle, whether they have an opponent or not,” said Donovan. “There’s not a quid pro quo expected. They’re just advertising themselves.”

Richard Roesler can be reached at (360) 664-2598 or by e-mail at richr@spokesman.com.


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