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July 2nd, 2013

Show Me the Money: Why Fundraising Will Be Key in GOP US Senate Primary

Sunday marked the end of a quarterly fundraising period, the first period in which the three announced Republican candidates for the U.S. Senate will have to disclose the money they have raised and spent on their campaigns.

Matt Whitaker has been in the race the longest, having set up his committee back on May 8th.  David Young officially joined the race on June 1st, and Sam Clovis officially joined the race on June 27th.  The dates are important because they mark the length of time these candidates have had to raise funds.

In terms of expectations, all eyes will be on Whitaker and Young to see what each was able to raise though their networks.  Clovis doesn’t necessarily have to deal with fundraising expectations because people don’t expect him to have raised much due to the fact that he got in the race a short time before the fundraising deadline.

The fourth candidate, Mark Jacobs, announced an exploratory committee last week.  Jacobs has yet to officially set up a campaign committee, and he may not have to if he is using a “testing the waters” designation.  That would allow Jacobs to travel the state, conduct polls, and make telephone calls to help determine if he should become a candidate.  Once Jacobs raises or spends over $5000, he will have to register as an official candidate like the other three.

Even though the race on the Republican side is still in its infancy, the initial fundraising numbers posted by Whitaker, Young, and Clovis will give us an indication of the type of campaigns they will each be able to build.  While Clovis doesn’t have fundraising expectations like his two opponents, raising money will still be essential if he wants to be a serious threat to win the Republican nomination.

With all of the major Republican officeholders taking a pass at running for the open U.S. Senate seat in Iowa, there has been a notion floating around that fundraising is now less important.  Even though the Republican race is a complete toss up, that doesn’t mean that money will play a less prominent role.  We can look at two recent U.S. Senate races in neighboring states to get an idea of what it will take to win a Republican U.S. Senate primary.

The 2012 Republican primary for the U.S. Senate in Missouri is probably the most comparable to what Iowa Republicans may be looking at in 2014.  However, there is one notable exception; the Missouri Senate seat in 2014 wasn’t vacant like Iowa’s U.S. Senate seat will be in 2014.  However, everyone and their brother had written off Sen. Claire McCaskill for dead at the beginning of the 2012 election cycle.

The Republican race in Missouri featured businessman John Brunner, Congressman Todd Akin, and former State Treasurer Sarah Steelman.  The GOP primary in Iowa will be more crowded and will not feature a sitting congressman, but it will feature a well-connected politico in Young, a former statewide candidate in Whitaker (albeit that was a long time ago), and a wealthy businessman in Jacobs.

Not everyone remembers the Missouri primary, but we all remember the implosion of Akin’s campaign shortly after he won that primary.  As far as the Iowa/Missouri comparison goes, what’s interesting is how much the three candidates raised before primary day.  All three candidates raised north of a million dollars.  Steeleman raised $1.2 million, Akin $2.2 million, and Brunner $7.3 million.

Akin won the primary with 36 percent of the vote, Steeleman finished second with 30 percent of the vote, and Brunner finished third with 29 percent of the vote.   Yes, the candidate with the most money finished last, but both Akin and Steeleman raised enough money to wage a real primary campaign.  Akin spent $10.30 for every vote he received compared to Brunner’s $41.89.

Akin’s $10.30 a vote looks like a pretty good deal, and it is comparable to what Bob Vander Plaats spent per vote in the 2010 Republican gubernatorial primary in Iowa.  Vander Plaats actually spent $10.53 per vote he received in 2010, but that was only good for roughly 40 percent of the vote.  Still, the $980,000 Vander Plaats raised in that primary should be used as a low benchmark for 2014 Republican Senate candidates.  Terry Branstad, who garnered over 50 percent of the vote in the 2010 gubernatorial primary, spent over $2.7 million in the primary, or roughly $24 for each vote he received.

Many believe that the Republican U.S. Senate primary can be won on a bargain basement budget.  It all depends on what the field of candidates ends up being, but as the field expands, which it is likely to do, having the financial resources to communicate to the voters becomes even more important.  There will always be a candidate or candidates that plan for a state convention strategy, but a serious campaign will do what ever it can to surpass the 35 percent threshold and avoid a nominating convention.

For those looking to win the U.S. Senate primary on the cheap, the Nebraska U.S. Senate primary is you.  The vote totals from the Nebraska primary are also very much in line with what one could expect in the GOP primary next June.  The Nebraska primary was full of recognizable names.  Nebraska Attorney General John Bruning was considered to be the frontrunner.  He was challenged by State Treasurer Don Stenberg and a State Senator by the name of Deb Fischer.

Bruning raised $2.8 million for the primary, Stenberg $683,000, and Fischer $394,000.  Fischer won with 41 percent of the vote, followed by Bruning with 36 percent, then Stenberg with just 19 percent of the vote.  These results probably have all of the current and potential Iowa Republican U.S. Senate candidates thinking that $400,000 could be enough to win them the primary.

Think again.

The fundraising figures in the Nebraska race only tell half the story.  Chicago Cubs owner, Joe Rickets, poured $200,000 into the race through a Super PAC to promote Fischer and attack Bruning.  The Club for Growth spent more that $700,000 attacking Bruning, and Jim DeMint’s Senate Conservative Fund spent over a million dollars helping Stenberg.  The notion that the Republican primary for the U.S. Senate can be won on a shoestring budget is nothing more than a pipedream.

There is a reason why the old saying, “Money is the mother’s milk of politics,” is still used today. Money plays a much larger role in modern politics then it did when that saying was coined in the 1960’s.  It is a basic fact that serious statewide campaigns cost a lot of money.  We all know that radio and TV ads cost a lot of money, but so does payroll.  On top of that, you also have to pay rent, travel expenses for staff, phones and utilities, and a bunch of other stuff.

The four candidates that are already announced are looking at a grueling 12 month long primary campaign.  Even though most of a campaign’s expenses occur in the last few months leading up to the election, ongoing expenses such as staff, office rental, yard signs, website, and consultant fees can rack up quickly.

Raising a million dollars may seem like a daunting task, but spending a million dollars in a statewide primary doesn’t really get a candidate much.  Now, I don’t think anyone who is in this race is going to spend $83,000 a month for the next twelve months, but a serious campaign is going to spend a considerable amount of money on a monthly basis once it’s fully operational on just staff alone.

We will know just how serious the initial group of candidates is once we see what they were able to raise in first reporting period.  The first fundraising report is typically the best for a candidate provided they have given themselves ample time to raise money.  That’s why all eyes will be on Whitaker and Young’s reports in a few weeks.

Activists never like to read or hear about the importance money plays in politics, but it is a fact of campaign life.  The Democrat candidate for the U.S. Senate, Congressman Bruce Braley, was able to raise an impressive amount of money in the initial months of his candidacy.  Iowa Republicans should expect their candidates to show them the money raised as well.



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About the Author

Craig Robinson
Craig Robinson serves as the founder and Editor-in-Chief of Prior to founding Iowa's largest conservative news site, Robinson served as the Political Director of the Republican Party of Iowa during the 2008 Iowa Caucuses. In that capacity, Robinson planned and organized the largest political event in 2007, the Iowa Straw Poll, in Ames, Iowa. Robinson also organized the 2008 Republican caucuses in Iowa, and was later dispatched to Nevada to help with the caucuses there. Robinson cut his teeth in Iowa politics during the 2000 caucus campaign of businessman Steve Forbes and has been involved with most major campaigns in the state since then. His extensive political background and rolodex give him a unique perspective from which to monitor the political pulse of Iowa.

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