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Opinion >  Column

Spin Control: Money helps keep legislative races uncompetitive

Sept. 18, 2022 Updated Tue., Sept. 20, 2022 at 1:58 p.m.

Washington State Legislative Building in Olympia.  (Albert James/The Spokesman-Review)
Washington State Legislative Building in Olympia. (Albert James/The Spokesman-Review)

Although Spokane was once the home to some of the hottest, closest and most expensive legislative races in the state, the 2022 races are fairly tame so far and will likely stay that way through the Nov. 8 election.

That’s partly a result of local districts being redrawn over the past few decades to make the partisan competition difficult. But it’s also a function of a campaign financing system that gives incumbents a sometimes insurmountable advantage in cash.

Most incumbents in Eastern Washington’s heavily Republican districts have little or no opposition. The exception is state Rep. Rob Chase, who is facing fellow Republican Leonard Christian in the Spokane Valley’s 4th Legislative District, which could be the closest race in the general, based on the results in the primary.

It’s also one of the few races where the two candidates are competitive as far as their campaign funds, with Chase reporting about $22,800 in contributions and Christian about $17,400.

While none of the local legislative races will make the list of the most expensive campaigns this year, seven area lawmakers have collected six-figure campaign funds, despite four – Reps. Joe Schmick and Joel Kretz and Sens. Shelly Short and Jeff Holy – having no opponent. An eighth incumbent, Rep. Mary Dye, who is also running unopposed, is just short of six figures with some $90,000.

Jacquelin Maycumber, the current front-runner as far as money-collecting among area legislators and eighth among all House candidates with about $210,000, does have an opponent. Fellow Republican Lonny Ray Williams has raised just under $8,000.

The two Democratic House members in central Spokane’s 3rd District, Timm Ormsby and Marcus Riccelli, also have brought in more than $100,000 in contributions. But they collected nearly twice as many votes as their Republican opponents in the primary, which makes it hard for those underfunded challengers to raise more money to continue the fight.

The money invested in those candidates – some might say thrown at them – illustrates some problems with Washington’s campaign financing system.

First, it comes largely from businesses, political action committees, unions and tribes, $1,000 at a time, which is the current state limit for legislators for an election. But because there are two elections each year – a primary and a general – some incumbents collect $2,000 from those groups, even if they have no opposition in either.

Second, regardless of their party affiliation, incumbents get big bucks from many of the same “usual suspects,” including Avista, Boeing, Amazon, Microsoft, Pfizer and Anheuser-Busch. Those companies employ some of the best lobbyists in the state, so they obviously know these candidates aren’t in danger of losing. So they are either rewarding them for support in the previous session or guaranteeing access in the next session. Or both.

Third, candidates who have lots of money but little or no opposition aren’t required to spend it on their campaign, and most don’t. They pay bookkeepers to keep track of their money, rent and utilities for an office. Many pay consultants whose jobs in such easy campaigns may be about as difficult as patrolling the shores of Lake Coeur d’Alene to make sure no one gets eaten by alligators. Most spread money around to various partisan political action committees, which in turn reinvest it in other candidates. Some legislators who represent mostly rural and suburban areas spend money on booths or banners at the various county fairs in their far-flung districts.

They also transfer large amounts of cash to so-called “surplus accounts” that could be used in a future campaign. Maycumber, for example, has moved $149,000 of her campaign money into her surplus account and Riccelli, currently 18th among House members in money-raising, has moved $85,000 to his surplus account.

But with districts so predictably Democratic or Republican, it’s increasingly unlikely an incumbent will use up the money collected by a future campaign and need to tap those surplus funds. Those accounts become little more than slush funds with relatively few restrictions, providing money for certain things they might want to do or places they want to go after they win or after they retire.

After siphoning off money to the slush fund, however, candidates still collect new money for the current campaign.

There’s no way to change the district boundaries for the next 10 years, so if Washington voters want competitive races, they’ll have to do something about campaign financing. Here are a few ideas:

• Allow challengers to raise money as soon as they announce, but don’t allow contributions to incumbents until filing week is over. If a candidate is running unopposed, lower the contribution limit from $1,000 to $100 in the primary, with no second contribution for the general election. If an incumbent’s party has won the seat for the past 10 years and they draw an opponent from another party, cut the maximum contribution in half, to $500, before the primary.

• If a candidate collects more than 60% of the vote in the primary, cut the contribution limit in half, and raise the limit for the second-place finisher by 50% for the general election. If the challenger is closer than 20 percentage points in the primary, the $1,000 limit should apply to both candidates for the general.

• If a candidate transfers money to their surplus account, bar them from collecting new contributions for their campaign. That would likely mean that they’d wait until after the election to transfer the money out, so a separate rule should bar them from raising any money for the next election until they’ve moved all surplus money into the next campaign’s fund and spent it.

• If they decide not to run for another election, a special excise tax should take half of the money in the surplus account and put it in the state General Fund.

This won’t solve all the problems with the state’s campaign financing system or make every race competitive. But they could start the conversation. Maybe it’s time to stop treating campaign financing like the weather, something that everybody complains about but nobody does anything about.

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