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Opinion >  Column

Shawn Vestal: Pakootas has 16-to-1 problem

Shawn Vestal
Shawn Vestal

What does the yawning gulf in fundraising between Cathy McMorris Rodgers and her challenger, Joe Pakootas, tell us?

A lot – and maybe a lot more than David-and-Goliath narratives about political money suggest. Yes, the incumbent has leveraged all the advantages of incumbency – perhaps including the improper mingling of the public’s business with her campaign, which has been the subject of an ethics complaint. And yes, lots of money from out of the district has come into her coffers.

But the bottom line on the Pakootas bottom line is that it reflects a paucity of support that signals the difference between a serious and token candidacy.

Pakootas’ campaign manager, Susan Brudnicki, says this is wrong – that the association between big money and political success is part of the very establishment dynamic that is helping her candidate attract grass-roots support.

“There’s this idea out there that if you can’t raise a million dollars, there’s no way you can win,” Brudnicki said.

There is indeed that idea out there. If it’s not true – if direly underfunded challengers can indeed defeat well-heeled incumbents – the examples are as hard to find as the Higgs boson. Pakootas himself predicted months ago that he would need to raise between $1 million and $1.5 million to take a successful run at McMorris Rodgers. As of Sept. 30, he had raised just over $149,000, according to the latest filings with the Federal Election Commission. McMorris Rodgers has raised $2.4 million – a margin of 16-to-1.

There are plenty of reasons for this, and some of them boil down to the unsurprising patterns of big-money politics. McMorris Rodgers gets a lot of party and PAC support. Pakootas gets almost none, as a clear sign of what the Democratic big money thinks of his chances. And McMorris Rodgers’ national profile has helped bring in cash from groups and individuals around the country.

But there’s more to it than that. We are conditioned to view campaign finance as the province of only the shady and diabolical – at least each side sees the other’s money in that light. And a large part of the political money race deserves nothing but our disgust, from corporate personhood to phony “social welfare” groups as fronts for unlimited billionaire spending on politics.

But when you comb through the campaign finance reports filed by these two campaigns, what you also see is an enormous difference in the number of individuals – people who live and vote in this district – ponying up for the candidate of their choice.

Say what you want about out-of-district money. The in-district money race is a bloodbath, too.

Take Spokane, the major population center of the 5th District. McMorris Rodgers has received 232 contributions from Spokane individuals; some of the contributors gave twice, in the primary and general election cycles, respectively.

Pakootas has gotten 57 Spokane contributions.

Both of those are top-to-bottom lists, from the $5 bills to the $2,600 checks.

Or consider their differences in drawing from the fertile pool of rich people. Rich people – not the Koch Brothers or George Soros, not PACs or labor unions, but the “ordinary,” local rich who can afford to give thousands to politicians – are another bellwether of political support, like it or not. McMorris Rodgers has raised 325 contributions of $1,000 or more as of Sept. 30; 314 of those are from individuals (again, many of these individuals gave twice, during the primary and general election cycles, respectively). A whole lot of these folks are business owners.

Pakootas has received 34 contributions of $1,000 or more. Twenty-three of those are from Native American tribes or tribal groups. His top individual contributions are two checks for $1,500 each.

Business owners and the rich are the GOP’s natural constituency, while many of the natural constituencies of Democrats – students, the poor, minorities – are not generally big-money donors. But that alone does not explain this drastic disparity, because big money is not the sole province of Republicans.

Almost 40 candidates for the Washington Legislature have raised more money than Pakootas. Rich Cowan, the guy who lost to McMorris Rodgers last time, has raised more money than Pakootas this time around in his bid for a state Senate seat against Michael Baumgartner. Two years ago, Cowan raised more than twice as much as Pakootas has at this point, though the race is not over.

Brudnicki, Pakootas’ campaign manager, said that the money question distorted the race before it even began, given that McMorris Rodgers started with a multimillion-dollar war chest and national name recognition. Right away, those who might be otherwise inclined to support Pakootas held back. “People sort of perceived it as unwinnable,” she said.

She said that as Pakootas has campaigned around the district, individual contributions are going up. It is her job to be publically optimistic, of course, but she says she believes Pakootas “absolutely” has a chance to prove everyone wrong, and the fact that he’s outside the big-money system is a strength.

“It feels more like a movement or a cause than a campaign,” she said.

It would be the bitingest of man-bites-dog stories if the 16-to-1 favorite loses. But it seems more likely that the person who turns McMorris Rodgers out of office will have to do more than oppose big money. That person will have to get some for themselves.

Shawn Vestal can be reached at (509) 459-5431 or Follow him on Twitter at @vestal13.

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