Although Spokane was once 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 continue that way through the November 8 elections.
This is partly due to the redrawing of local districts over the past few decades to make party competition difficult. But it’s also a function of the campaign finance system that gives incumbents an insurmountable edge in cash at times.
Most incumbents in the densely populated Republican districts of eastern Washington have little or no opposition. The exception is Representative Rob Chase, who faces fellow Republican Leonard Christian in Spokane Valley’s 4th Legislative District, which could be the closest race overall, based on the primary results.
It’s also one of the few races in which the two candidates compete in terms of their campaign money, with Chase reporting about $22,800 in contributions and Christian about $17,400.
While none of the local legislative races were on the list of the most expensive campaigns this year, seven lawmakers in the district have raised six-figure campaign money, although there are four – Joe Schmick, Joel Kretz, Senators Shelley Short and Jeff Holley – yet none rival. The eighth incumbent, Representative Mary Day, who is also running unopposed, is just under six figures at about $90,000.
Jacqueline Maycomber, the current leader in fundraising among district legislators and eighth among all House nominees at about $210,000, has a discount. Fellow Republican Lonnie Ray Williams raised just under $8,000.
And two Democrats in Central Spokane’s 3rd District, Tim Ormsby and Marcus Ritchley, have also brought in more than $100,000 in contributions. But they collected nearly twice as many votes as their Republican opponents in the primaries, making it difficult for underfunded rivals to raise more money to keep fighting.
The money invested in these candidates – some would say thrown at them – illustrates some of the problems in Washington’s campaign finance system.
First, it comes largely from corporations, PACs, unions and tribes, $1,000 at a time, which is the state’s current limit on election lawmakers. But because there are two elections each year — primary and general — some incumbents raise $2,000 from these groups, even if they have no opposition in either.
Second, regardless of party affiliation, office holders get big bucks from many “usual suspects,” including Avista, Boeing, Amazon, Microsoft, Pfizer and Anheuser-Busch. Those companies hire some of the best lobbyists in the state, so they clearly know these candidates are not in danger of losing. So they either reward them for support in the previous session or guarantee access in the next session. or both.
Third, candidates with a lot of money but little or no opposition are not required to spend it on their campaign, and most are not required to. They pay accountants to keep track of their money, rent, and office utilities. Many payroll consultants whose jobs in such easy campaigns are as difficult as patrolling the shores of Lake Coeur d’Alene to make sure no one is eaten by alligators can be found. Most of them spread the money to various party political action committees, which in turn reinvest them in other candidates. Some legislators representing rural and suburban areas mostly spend money on booths or signage at various county fairs in their outback.
They also transfer large amounts of cash into so-called “surplus accounts” that can be used in a future campaign. Maycumber, for example, moved $149,000 of her campaign money into her surplus account and Riccelli, who currently ranks 18th among House fundraising members, moved $85,000 into his surplus account.
But with Democratic or Republican districts expected, it is increasingly unlikely that an incumbent will use the money raised by a future campaign and need to take advantage of that surplus money. These accounts become little more than mud 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.
However, after the funds are transferred to the Slush Fund, candidates are still raising new funds for the current campaign.
There’s no way to change county boundaries over the next 10 years, so if Washington voters want competitive races, they’ll have to do something about campaign funding. Here are some ideas:
• Allow contestants to raise funds as soon as they are announced, but do not allow contributions for incumbents until submission 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 in the general election. If the party of an incumbent has won the seat for the past 10 years and attracted an opponent from another party, cut the maximum contribution in half, to $500, before the primaries.
• If a candidate receives more than 60% of the vote in the primaries, cut the contribution limit in half, and raise the runner-up limit by 50% in the general election. If a competitor is closer than 20 percentage points in the primary, the $1,000 limit must apply to both general candidates.
• If a candidate transfers money to his surplus account, prevent him from collecting new contributions to his campaign. This would likely mean that they would wait until after the election to transfer money abroad, so a separate rule would have to prevent them from raising any money for the next election until all surplus money has been transferred to the next campaign fund and spent.
• If they decide not to run for another election, the special excise tax should take half of the money in the surplus account and put it in the state’s general fund.
This won’t solve all problems with the government’s campaign finance system or make every race competitive. But they can start the conversation. Maybe it’s time to stop treating campaign finances like the weather, something everyone complains about but no one does anything about.