Spokane’s elections are the hottest game in the state for wealthy donors, local and national real estate groups, unions and others hoping to influence voters this November.
The candidates for mayor of Spokane, incumbent Nadine Woodward and challenger Lisa Brown, have collectively spent just shy of $1 million so far, more money than in any other race in the state – and that’s before factoring in the record-breaking funds dumped into the race by political action committees, which act independently from the candidates and whose spending has eclipsed direct donations to the campaigns themselves.
The largest independent expenditures supporting candidates anywhere in the state aren’t going to high-stakes City Council races in Washington’s largest city, Seattle – they’re going to support conservative-leaning candidates in Spokane. The National Association of Realtors, for instance, has donated over $430,000 to support Woodward and affiliated candidates for Spokane City Council, nearly twice as much as the group has invested in Seattle candidates.
The national organization made the contributions at the direction of the Spokane Association of Realtors, wrote communications Director Patrick Newton, who diverted further questions to local government affairs Director Darin Watkins. Watkins did not respond to a request for comment.
Spending in Seattle elections is significantly lower now than four years ago, with political action committees dumping $1.3 million into that city’s races this year compared with $4.4 million in 2019, the Seattle Times reported Wednesday. Meanwhile, nearly every election spending record in Spokane is being broken this year, and often by sizable margins.
“The main reason is because it’s two decidedly different futures in Spokane,” said Michael Baumgartner, former Republican state senator and one of the most prolific campaign fundraisers in Spokane County history. “Some people putting money in the race feel Spokane is at risk of becoming more like Seattle.”
Those donors aren’t concentrating all of their efforts to influence Seattle to become more like Spokane, Baumgartner hypothesized, because Seattle may be too far gone.
“I think a lot of people in the electoral and political scene feel like Seattle has gone past the tipping point,” he said. “The decision there is between the super radical left versus extremely radical left, where you get more fundamental differences in Spokane.”
The more conservative candidates in each race – Woodward, City Council President candidate Kim Plese and council member candidates Earl Moore, Katey Treloar and Councilman Michael Cathcart – have raised more money than their progressive counterparts, both for independent support and direct fundraising, and usually by a wide margin.
Woodward and Brown have shattered the previous fundraising record set by Mayor David Condon during his 2015 re-election campaign, for which he raised over $395,000. Woodward has reported raising around $560,000 to Brown’s $512,000. Spokane’s mayoral candidates already have spent nearly $1 million of that direct fundraising; the next most expensive race in Washington so far is that of Seattle City Council District 1, where candidates have spent more than $610,000.
The race for Spokane City Council president is the seventh-most expensive election in the state this year, and Plese has raised more than any other candidate for the position, which was first elected in 2000 . Plese reported raising over $267,000, breaking the record set in 2019 when candidate Cindy Wendle raised around $260,000. Plese is running against Councilwoman Betsy Wilkerson, who has raised nearly $222,000, the third-largest war chest for the position ever.
Treloar, who is running against Paul Dillon to represent south Spokane, reported raising over $160,000 as of Oct. 20, significantly more money than any other City Council member candidate in the city’s history. The previous record of nearly $110,000 was set by Councilman Zack Zappone in 2021.
Campaign spending has increased nationwide at a rate much higher than inflation, said Washington State University Professor Travis Ridout, whose research specializes in political communications, campaigns, political advertising and public opinion.
“It’s just so easy to get money into the system right now, through legal frameworks that have changed – there are now super PACs, 501(c)s that will take your money and not tell anyone where its coming from – and part of it’s changing technology and the ease to get small dollar donations,” Ridout said. “Campaigns used to rely on direct-mail to donors or $2,000-a-plate fundraisers, whereas now it’s a lot easier to get that $25 donation online.”
Those small-dollar donations have added up. Brown has received over $113,000 in contributions of either cash or in-kind contributions amounting to less than $100, while Woodward’s campaign has attracted around $38,000.
Though Ridout’s focus is on national elections, he concurs with Baumgartner’s hypothesis for why Spokane in particular seems to have been the recipient of so much election spending.
“Spokane seems like one of those few places where either a Democrat or a Republican could legitimately win,” he said, noting that while local races are ostensibly bipartisan, there are clear partisan lines being drawn.
Brown is a longtime member of the state Democratic party, for instance, and a recipient of over $6,000 from the state Democratic Central Committee, and the Spokane County Democratic Party has endorsed her, Wilkerson and council member candidates Dillon, Lindsey Shaw and Kitty Klitzke. The Spokane GOP has endorsed Woodward, Plese, Cathcart and Moore. Treloar has not been endorsed by either party but is largely buoyed by the same individuals and organizations backing Woodward.
Direct contributionsWoodward’s campaign contributor list is packed with Realtors, developers, property managers, hospitality groups and security companies, as well as the owners of those companies. Brown has received a similar degree of support from progressive political organizations such as Fuse Washington and most unions – the biggest exception being the Spokane Police Guild, which donated $1,000 to Woodward.
Since the beginning of October, Brown has received donations of $1,000 or more from various interest groups. These include unions, such as the D.C.-based International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers and the Kent-area Local 1747 firefighters union, progressive organizations like the Alliance for Gun Responsibility Victory Fund, and Democratic Party apparatuses such as the Spokane County Democrats, which gave $3,800, and the state Democratic Central Committee, which gave $5,000.
Woodward’s recent high-dollar backers include real estate interests, such as the Washington Multi Family Association PAC and Bend, Oregon-based Danmar Properties, businesses such as Stop N Go and Byrd Property Management and various Republicans, such as conservative blogger and former chairwoman of the Spokane County Republican Party Robin Ball and Idaho Republican state Rep. Jordan Redman.
The business-union fundraising dichotomy is present in other local races.
Plese has raised over $266,000 compared to Wilkerson’s $222,000. Moore has raised $88,000 to Klitzke’s $86,000, the closest a liberal candidate has come to outraising their opponent this year. Treloar has raised $160,000, nearly double the $83,000 brought in by Dillon. Cathcart has raised nearly $70,000 to Shaw’s $58,000; their race was the only one locally without a primary, as there were only two candidates, which lowered the cap on contributions.
In every case, the conservative candidates have received more direct contributions and are far more likely to be backed by business interests, while liberals trail the fundraising race despite robust backing from unions.
As evidenced by her outsized contributions, Treloar is the most likely of the Woodward-bloc candidates to have received funding from donors that other City Council candidates did not, such as $1,200 donations from Chris Lanier, vice president of sales at the Seattle-based CorneaGen, which specializes in cornea transplants, and real estate investor Terry Tombari, owner of Tombari Properties.
While direct contributions to campaigns are restricted by state law, limiting how much an individual or group can donate to a candidate, those same donors can give essentially limitless money to independent committees in support of their favored candidates. As long as those committees do not collude with the campaigns, these committees allow wealthy donors, businesses and unions to throw their weight around.
Over $1.9 million of this independent spending has flooded in to support Spokane candidates, almost all of which – around $1.7 million, or 89% – has gone to support conservative candidates.
Amid record-breaking spending meant to sway Spokane voters, one group stands alone: the Spokane Good Government Alliance. A conservative political action committee created in 2019 to stump on behalf of then-candidate for mayor Woodward, the Alliance has raised $1.4 million to buoy the more conservative candidates in every city election this year: Woodward, Plese, Cathcart, Treloar and Moore.
The group already has spent over $1.3 million of that war chest, including over $430,000 on digital advertising, over $380,000 on TV advertising and nearly $190,000 on print advertising, such as mailers. The vast majority of all attack ads in local elections this year were paid for by the alliance, which has spent more to attack liberals – $835,672 – than to support conservatives with positive ads.
John Estey, the executive director of Spokane Good Government Alliance and campaign manager for Republican Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, wrote in an email the group hoped to inform voters about “radical-left” candidates for local office and encourage them to support their conservative opponents.
The National Association of Realtors and the Washington Realtors Political Action Committee have taken a different tack, collectively spending over $477,000 in support of conservatives without a dollar spent on attack ads.
The progressive Citizens for Liberty and Labor PAC, which formed in 2019 as an explicit rebuttal to the influence of organizations like the Spokane Good Government Alliance, has not been able to muster nearly the same kind of resources. The progressive PAC has raised over $360,000 and thrown its weight behind Brown, Wilkerson, Klitzke, Dillon and Shaw.
That committee has reported spending $230,000, of which $110,000 was spent on television ads and another $81,000 was spent on print ads and costs associated with transporting that messaging through the mail, such as postage.
One of the smallest independent players in Spokane’s elections this year is the Washington Multi-Family Housing Association PAC, which spent $20,000 producing an ad in support of Woodward, Plese, Cathcart, Treloar and Moore, and has donated an additional $1,200 directly to each of their campaigns. The Renton-based committee is supporting candidates and causes across the political spectrum this year, including $1,200 donations each to committees supporting state Democratic Senate and House candidates. Their largest expenditure this year was a $40,000 donation to oppose Tacoma Measure 1, a ballot measure that would greatly expand renter protections in that city.
The association is bankrolled by a long list of property management and real estate companies throughout the state, but its only significant individual donors are the Kirkland-based Weidner Property Management, which donated $10,000 and has been criticized by former tenants for sharp rent increases and alleged poor maintenance of residential properties, and Seattle-based Equity Residential, a publicly traded real estate investment trust which donated over $6,600.