Candidates don’t need to spend a lot to win in R.I., but it sure helps

Gubernatorial candidates don’t necessarily need to spend a lot of money to win votes in the nation’s smallest state. But money matters in elections here too, according to political scientists and campaign observers who say the candidates who can outspend challengers have a better chance of getting their message across unfiltered.

Just as in 2014, now-incumbent Democratic Gov. Gina M. Raimondo has amassed a significant campaign fund that dwarfs her opponents.

By the end of March, Raimondo had $4.3 million available for her re-election campaign, about 15 times that of her closest competitor.

While second-quarter results due on July 31 may show other candidates have kicked their finances into high gear, Raimondo’s fundraising has given her a clear financial advantage over her challengers.

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By April, she had already raised about two-thirds of the $5.6 million she spent in 2014 on her election. In that race, she more than doubled spending by Cranston Mayor Allan W. Fung, her Republican challenger. His campaign spent $2.1 million that year, according to state campaign finance records. And about half of that was gained through public matching dollars.

This year, Fung also trails in the financial arena. He raised $188,807 from contributors in the quarter ended March 31, and another $2,750 from political action committees. His GOP challengers in the primary have raised even less.

Rep. Patricia L. Morgan, R-Coventry, raised $76,111 from contributors in the first quarter, while Giovanni Feroce, a former Alex & Ani LLC executive, raised $500.

Matt Brown, a former Rhode Island secretary of state, collected $57,020 from supporters through March, according to his first-quarter report. In challenging Raimondo in the Democratic primary, he noted that he had announced his campaign just weeks before the financial-report filing deadline. He will raise what he needs, he said, in a recent interview.

“You [only] have to raise enough to get a message out,” he said.

That may be true, said political science professors and campaign finance specialists. But the money helps carry a message.

‘[Rhode Island] is a state where local touches matter.’
JUNE SPEAKMAN, RWU political science department chairwoman

June Speakman, a professor and chairwoman of the political science department at Roger Williams University, said that voters in Rhode Island can respond to candidates with name recognition who don’t necessarily spend a lot of money. She cited the late Robert Healey, who won 21 percent of the vote in the 2014 gubernatorial election.

“He spent $35 or something, on a few books of stamps,” Speakman said. “You don’t have to spend a lot of money to get votes. However, people who do spend money tend to do pretty well in politics. Especially if you outspend your opponent by a lot, in general.”

The financial edge will give Raimondo early access to booking media, including television ads and targeted social media campaigns, which already has begun.

Historically, Rhode Island elections have been fairly inexpensive compared to other states, because the state is small, has a single metro area and one media market, said John Marion, executive director of Common Cause of Rhode Island.

There is no limit to how much a candidate can spend on paid advertisements, he said. Although Rhode Island has a public financing system for campaigns, which sets limits on spending, participation is voluntary.

“You can run as many campaign ads as you can find money to pay for them,” Marion said. “One of the interesting things is, [Raimondo] may be able to buy all the ad space in the weeks up to the election because they prebook that. There is a reason they call it a war chest. It’s there to warn off the other candidates that you have a lot of money and you’re formidable.”

However formidable Raimondo’s fundraising has been, she did draw a primary competitor in Brown. And while his first quarterly report didn’t reflect much activity, Speakman suspects that he will start to show progress in the second quarter.

“He’s caught fire in the progressive circles in Rhode Island,” she said.

Moreover, Rhode Island remains, like New Hampshire and other small states, a place where local connections by a candidate may matter more than paid messaging.

“It is a state where local touches matter,” Speakman said. “If you show up at the church fairs or come to the coffee hours that people hold in their homes, that goes a long way because people will tell their neighbors and friends.”

In recent decades, and particularly with Raimondo’s election, the culture of spending on the gubernatorial races seems to be shifting, with more contributions coming from out-of-state sources and in larger amounts.

In 2014, the state’s gubernatorial election had the highest cost-per-vote of any race in the U.S. for the four years prior, according to an analysis of data by the Council of State Governments.

That year, the election that brought Raimondo into office had a cost of $41.62 per vote, more than $13 per vote higher than the next-most-expensive election, in Illinois.

Marion said former governors Donald L. Carcieri, a Republican, and the late Democrat Bruce Sundlun both spent heavily on gubernatorial campaigns. But they were largely self-funded.

An analysis of the first-quarter campaign finance reports this year shows Raimondo draws a much larger share of the largest contributions allowed under state law than her challengers. And she’s drawing a larger share of out-of-state contributors.

Raimondo’s first-quarter report, which spanned 477 pages, included contributions from 2,109 individuals. They represented 35 states and Washington, D.C. Only 48 percent of her contributions came from Rhode Island supporters.

More than half – 54 percent – of her donors gave the annual maximum of $1,000.

Given the fact that Rhode Island’s maximum individual contribution is actually low compared to many other states – some have no limits – the amount she’s been able to generate from donors has been notable, Marion said.

“She’s the most prodigious fundraiser we’ve ever seen run for governor in Rhode Island,” Marion said.

By comparison, Fung and Morgan, in particular, had contributions that drew heavily on Rhode Island residents, and in smaller denominations.

According to his report, Fung had 760 contributions from individuals, 12 percent of whom gave the annual maximum of $1,000. His supporters spanned 17 states, and 90 percent of his donations came from within Rhode Island.

Morgan reported 308 individual contributions. Of those, 93 percent were from Rhode Island residents. Only 12 percent of her contributors gave $1,000.

The Raimondo campaign report indicates that beyond Rhode Island and Massachusetts, most of her contributors live in New York, California and Illinois.

“She has a very different fundraising network than anyone else in Rhode Island,” Marion observed. “She has a national fundraising network.” This invites criticism, which has been leveled by her opponents, that she spends too much time out of state, fundraising.

“There is a fair criticism that she spends a significant amount of her time fundraising, instead of governing, but a politician with a national profile and a national fundraising base is going to leave the state to raise money,” Marion said.

Although in much smaller numbers, Brown also has a large percentage of contributors from outside the state, according to his finance report. He accepted funds from 153 individuals through March, with only 25 percent of them being Rhode Islanders.

About 25 percent of his contributors gave the maximum contribution of $1,000.

Beyond Rhode Island and Massachusetts, Brown’s greatest number of supporters live in Washington, D.C., where he lived after leaving Rhode Island, and New York and California.

Do the out-of-state contributions matter to the average voter? Speakman suggests they do not.

“It matters to people who pay attention to where your contributions come from, which is not a whole lot of people,” she said. Although Brown could use Raimondo’s national contributors as an issue – he’s vulnerable on that count, Speakman said.

“He spent the last decade out of the state,” she said.

And to Raimondo’s credit, she observed, her financial contributions are clearly enumerated. Although not required, her campaign-finance report includes the smallest of donations – down to $1 and $2 from some individuals.

“Most of her money is in the light,” Speakman said. “You know where it’s coming from.”

Independent of the candidates themselves, political action committees can contribute heavily to favored candidates, including those affiliated with the candidates themselves.

For a long time, typically these were associated in Rhode Island with the offices of House speaker or Senate president, but Raimondo supporters operate the GINA PAC.

According to its first-quarter financial report, individuals donated $11,000 to the committee, adding to the $43,637 that started the year. Expenditures were made to, among others, the Raimondo campaign, the Rhode Island Democratic State Committee, an election fund for Senate President Dominick J. Ruggerio, and to one for House Speaker Nicholas A. Mattiello.

On the Republican side, the Republican Governors Association Right Direction PAC has already started spending money within the state, with the stated purpose of defeating Raimondo. A report filed with the state shows $50,000 was spent by the PAC in June on Rhode Island Forward Inc., a Warwick entity.