An inspection of the results of the Aug. 28 primaries reaffirms a pillar of political life: Money goes hand-in-hand with victory.
In every contested Senate primary, the winner spent more money than the loser. In contested House primaries, not all of the top spenders won, but on average, winners raised and spent about 30 percent more than those who lost.
The amount of money spent by outside groups also lines up with primary victories. More independent expenditures supported those who won and opposed those who lost.
Bruce Merrill, senior research fellow at The Morrison Institute of Public Policy at Arizona State University, said there’s nothing new about the trend.
“That’s normal,” he said.
But seeing it play out reignites a long-posed, chicken-or-egg question: Does having and spending more money lead to political victory, or do better candidates and campaigns attract more financial support?
Merrill said he thinks both explanations are true and that accurately answering the question requires looking at individual races.
Republican Bob Worsley’s primary win over former Senate President Russell Pearce in Legislative District 25 in the southeast Valley cost $242,000, with $190,000 coming from Worsley’s own pocket. He outspent Pearce by more than $100,000. Outside groups spent $14,000 supporting Worsley and $26,000 opposing Pearce.
Worsley’s campaign manager defended the spending, saying a win against someone as iconic and well-known as Pearce requires a lot of money.
“It takes money to get out there and run a race. That’s not news,”
Ryan Anderson said. “But in (Worsley’s) case, you have a guy who started on day one with 16 percent name ID. Pearce had around 90 percent name ID. We ended this race, according to our last poll at 80 percent name ID. There’s no coincidence there.”
Anderson said the spending was done in a targeted, non-traditional way. Mailers and TV ads were planned far in advance and coincided with other news events. One example was the first TV ad the Worsley campaign aired, which slammed Pearce for only being concerned with anti-illegal immigration legislation. That ad ran after Pearce spoke about SB1070, his most notable anti-illegal immigration measure, in front of a U.S. Senate committee, and again after the U.S. Supreme Court struck down major portions of the law.
The ad buys were also buttressed by a well-financed ground game, where paid staffers went door-to-door to meet with voters.
“We knocked on 20,000 doors. It’s hard to get volunteers to do that in 117-degree heat,” Anderson said.
Merrill said that although there are exceptions, outside money can be a major factor in winning an election. Special interest groups do a lot of research. They naturally want to support a winner who after taking office will have an incentive to work in the interest group’s favor, he observed.
“Special interests need to be with winning campaigns,” Merrill said.
“That’s just the way it works.”
Special interests helped Rep. Michelle Ugenti, a Scottsdale Republican, prevail in her bid to represent Legislative District 23 against Jennifer Petersen, even though Petersen’s campaign spent $79,000, more than two and a half times as much money as Ugenti’s $30,000 campaign spending.
Ugenti had $33,000 in additional outside support, mostly from real estate and construction groups, largely offsetting Petersen’s decision to pour much of her own money into the campaign. While Ugenti explained her success by saying she has a dedicated base of support that wants to see her back in office, Petersen chalked up her loss to the incumbent’s advantage.
“As a non-incumbent, there is a natural disadvantage,” Petersen said.
“You don’t have the special interests funding your campaigns.”
Sometimes candidates, despite the amount of money their campaigns spend, have an advantage in their connection to the district, Merrill said. In those cases, a strong network, combined with the typically low voter turnout in primaries, can overcome a money advantage.
For example, Rep. Catherine Miranda, D-Phoenix, spent only $7,000 on her primary campaign for a House seat in Legislative District 27 this year. Although she was outspent nearly 3-to-1 by first-time challenger Reginald Bolding, she still won, and without the support of any outside spending.
Bolding said nearly all his money was spent trying to boost his name ID in the heavily Democratic south Phoenix district.
“I think part of it was the incumbency. We knew from the beginning it was going to be an uphill challenge,” Bolding said. “The name recognition is huge, and as a first-time candidate, I knew it was going to take a lot of work.”
Spent an average of $31,000
Had an average of $10,000 of outside opposition spending*
Spent an average of $23,000
Had an average of $14,000 of outside opposition spending*
*In races where there was outside opposition spending