Special congressional race campaign spending expected to be lower than normal elections

LT. GOV. SABINA MATOS, one of nine confirmed candidates running for the U.S. House of Representatives, feels it will take $1 million in fundraising to run a successful campaign for this special election. / AP FILE PHOTO/JOHN LOCHER
LT. GOV. SABINA MATOS, one of nine confirmed candidates running for the U.S. House of Representatives, feels it will take $1 million in fundraising to run a successful campaign for this special election. / AP FILE PHOTO/JOHN LOCHER

PROVIDENCE – The state’s 2nd Congressional District race between Seth Magaziner and Allan W. Fung had the biggest spotlight during last year’s election cycle, and for good reason. The two candidates were vying for the seat that longtime representative James R. Langevin was vacating after more than two decades in the U.S. House of Representatives.

That race – won by Magaziner last November – also had lots of money flowing around. Both Magaziner and Fung raised and spent more than $6 million combined on their campaigns, fueled by both local and federal backing.

Now, with Rep. David N. Cicilline, D-R.I., soon stepping away to lead the Rhode Island Foundation in June, campaign spending on the upcoming special election will look much different for many reasons.

Plenty of money will still be spent on this condensed race, mostly on the primary run for the nine confirmed Democratic candidates involved. Lt. Gov. Sabina Matos, Rep. Nathan W. Biah, D-Providence, Providence City Councilor John Goncalves, Sen. Sandra Cano, D-Pawtucket, former secretary of state candidate Stephanie Beaute, former Gina M. Raimondo aide Nick Autiello, former state representative Aaron Regunberg, Sen. Ana B. Quezada and Rep. Marvin J. Abney, D-Newport, are all seeking Cicilline’s seat to date.

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But, with only months before 1st Congressional District voters cast their ballots and the race solely featuring candidates from one political party, some say campaign budgets will not be as big for this congressional election. John Marion, executive director of the government watchdog organization Common Cause Rhode Island, feels only “hundreds of thousands” could be spent by candidates in this unique race, a stark contrast to what campaigns had spent in prior elections.

Cicilline during his congressional career had spent as low as $913,194 on his 2016 re-election campaign to as much as $2.4 million to again win the seat in 2012. Cicilline spent $1.7 million on his re-election push last year. Marion said candidates may find a path to victory financially by “just relying on their regional base.” Plus, with the primary election less than five months away, the election is going to be more of a “sprint” than a traditional marathon-like pace of normal elections, Marion said.

AARON REGUNBERG has thus far raised more than $154,000 for his quest for U.S. Congress. He, along with fellow candidates Sen. Sandra Cano, D-Pawtucket; and Providence City Councilor John Goncalves, feel that at least $500,000 will need to be raised for their respective campaigns to help with their election aspirations. / COURTESY AARON REGUNBERG
AARON REGUNBERG has thus far raised more than $154,000 for his quest for U.S. Congress. He, along with fellow candidates Sen. Sandra Cano, D-Pawtucket; and Providence City Councilor John Goncalves, feel that at least $500,000 will need to be raised for their respective campaigns to help with their election aspirations. / COURTESY AARON REGUNBERG

Some candidates have received significant financial support so far and feel at least six figures will be needed to have a strong campaign. Regunberg, in just 24 hours after announcing his candidacy, has raised more than $150,000 from local individuals in what he says is a “grassroots” effort to fundraise in lieu of accepting donations from political action committees. Regunberg told Providence Business News he plans to raise about $500,000, and potentially more, for his quest for Washington, D.C.

Cano says she began her campaign with $100,000, between her own money and funds from the community. She too hopes to raise $500,000 going forward to “get the message out.” Goncalves declined to disclose how much he has raised thus far, saying he’s “off to a very good start” financially. But he also feels at least a half million dollars is needed to have a successful campaign this special election.

“These are expensive races,” Goncalves said. “If it’s not $500,000, then it’s $1 million. If it’s not $1 million, it’s $1.5 million. But we’re going to keep chipping away and doing what we need to do to get our message out to voters … to get across the finish line.”

Matos, who just won the lieutenant governor’s election and raised $350,000 in that respective race, says she has raised approximately $125,000 to date in her push for Congress. She knows a lot more is needed to get to the nation’s capital.

“It’s going to need a minimum of $1 million to run a competitive race,” Matos said.

Who is not running for Congress is also determining how fundraising and spending will be for this race. Rumors initially swirled about former CVS Health Corp. executive and gubernatorial candidate Helena B. Foulkes and House Speaker K. Joseph Shekarchi, D-Warwick, potentially seeking the coveted seat in Washington, D.C.

Foulkes, who lost a close gubernatorial primary in September, spent close to $5 million on her campaign – most of it being self-financed. Shekarchi, meanwhile, has $1.7 million currently in his campaign account, according to filings with the R.I. Board of Elections. Marion said that could have been switched over for a congressional run and gave Shekarchi a huge financial head start.

With both Foulkes and Shekarchi inactive, the race for Cicilline’s current seat will be “far less expensive” for the current candidates seeking office, Marion said. Abney, though, will have a strong financial start when he starts running in June with having $237,318 in his campaign account, per his finance report from Dec. 31, 2022.

REP. MARVIN J. ABNEY, D-Newport, who announced his candidacy for U.S. Congress late Tuesday, currently has $237,318 in his campaign account, per his finance report from Dec. 31, 2022, essentially giving him a solid financial head start on his upcoming campaign. / COURTESY MARVIN J. ABNEY
REP. MARVIN J. ABNEY, D-Newport, who announced his candidacy for U.S. Congress late Tuesday, currently has $237,318 in his campaign account, per his finance report from Dec. 31, 2022, essentially giving him a solid financial head start on his upcoming campaign. / COURTESY MARVIN J. ABNEY

Marion also noted that it is also less likely that candidates will receive national financial support if the race remains a one-party affair – no Republican has yet to declare his or candidacy for Cicilline’s seat. Marion and some candidates also foresee challenges in candidates seeking campaign contributions because of the high number of Democrats in the field all wanting financial support from the same voter pool within the 1st Congressional District.

“They’ll all have their respective bases, their core supporters,” Marion said. “But because they haven’t cleared the field … and it’s going to be hard for any Democrat to break out of the pack when it comes to fundraising.”

Matos says she’s counting on individuals who supported her in past races, including for Providence City Council, for financial backing in this congressional race. Regunberg’s fundraising going forward will be primarily through individual support as well, he said. Goncalves also says differentiation is needed both with the campaign’s message and fundraising given how full the Democratic field is at the moment.

Cano says she feels strongly that she can achieve her fundraising goal, but the more support she gets for her campaign, “the better” her chances, she said. Cano also has a leg up understanding running campaigns in a short window. She in a special election won her Senate seat in 2018 after then-Sen. James Doyle resigned from office.

“This will obviously be bigger, but I’m ready for the challenge,” Cano said.

James Bessette is the PBN special projects editor, and also covers the nonprofit and education sectors. You may reach him at Bessette@PBN.com. You may also follow him on Twitter at @James_Bessette.

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