A Comment On Outside Money In The WA Governor's Race



With the legislative session winding down, and today’s headlines about government reform challenges, it’s easy to think that the primary issues of the 2012 gubernatorial campaign will be about revenue, expenditures and the changing role of government.  And, to a degree, that is the case.If you’re Rob McKenna, talking about reforming a government led by a Democratic governor since 1984 – the longest single party occupancy of any governor’s mansion in the nation – is a good issue.  State government agencies are often perceived by the public at large as a hindrance or obstacle rather than a help to citizens.

If you’re Jay Inslee, talking about jobs and the economy – one that voters still connect to Republican policies at the federal level (for better or worse) – is a good issue.  It helps solidify the labor base and talks about pocket book issues people are sensitive to.

This is called the frame of campaign.  In other words, a primary effort of a campaign is to frame the final question before voters as they check boxes on their ballot.  If a campaign can frame a question in its candidate’s favor, it’s more likely to win.  Thus the importance of getting a key issue front and center.

Who do you trust to support job creation and get the economy moving?  Who do you trust to reform and reshape an out of date state government?  The answer to those questions may lead you to different candidates.

Neither issue, however, is set to be the most dominant issue of the campaign.  That issue is going to be health care – and that presents a challenge to both candidates in that the frame of the issue could be negative to both or either of them, depending on how that frame is developed.  I’ll explain why in a post next week.

At the end of the day, it’s a matter of numbers.  In 2008, Chris Gregoire raise $13.6m in her re-election bid.  Dino Rossi raised $11.6.

Add in a few years of inflation, and subtract the economic anxiety of today, and it’s reasonable to think that both Inslee and McKenna will raise about $15m this campaign.

That’s a drop in the bucket.  Case in point:

For the election cycle beginning in January 2011, the RGA (Republican Governors’ Association) has raised more than $56 million compared to $28 million for the DGA (Democratic Governors’ Association).

Their best fundraising months are ahead of them…  Mind you also that there are 12 governor races this year to distribute those dollars versus the 38 races of 2 years ago.  Of those 12, both camps say the Inslee-McKenna match up will be a high priority for those funds.

Recall this is just one group.  Add in other party organizations, unions, and corporations, and you get the picture:  there will be more money in this race, running more negative ads than any other election in our state’s history.

Campaign financing today is not about how much money a candidate can raise.  Though still relevant, that issue is really an issue of viability – “raise cash to prove you can play in this league.”  But, in a high profile race – like the WA governor race which was ranked the top governor’s race in the country a few months back, and still one of the top races in the country – the big money comes from the outside, and particularly DC.

While candidate campaigns have to spend money on staff, infrastructure, and getting voters to know the biographical basics of their candidate (all very expensive), the independent money is typically spent on negative campaigning.  A number of rules exist against openly promoting a candidate with independent dollars, for instance.  Negative campaigning, as we know, is done in such a way that it can shift the entire framework of a race.

For instance, remember “Swift Boat Veterans For Truth?”  This ad pierced the image of John Kerry as a war hero in an ad that reshaped the 2004 presidential election.  It was seen over and over again.  (The actual media buy was small.  It ran in three Ohio counties over a weekend.  But, it got picked up by the national media and became propagated nationwide.)

Expect that this will all play out in 2012, making the election likely far and away the single most expensive election in Washington State history.