Del. Marie March, R-Floyd County, has not taken losing well.
On the night she lost to Del. Wren Williams, R-Patrick County, in this week’s primary, March posted on Facebook: “We were funded by small dollar contributors, he spent half a million dollars of the big time lobbyists donations and his family’s big money and the backing of the Richmond swamp. Goes to show you, elections can and are being bought every single day!”
She wasn’t done. The next day she came back and, in response to a photo of Gov. Glenn Youngkin, Lt. Gov. Winsome Earle-Sears and Attorney General Jason Miyares — all Republicans, mind you — she posted: “One big happy family of sell-outs, pretending they care about you and messaging you they are good, kind and concerned. We have the most bought and paid for and OWNED governor and his crew in the United States. I have always known it when I looked into those black lying eyes. Shark eyes … snake eyes.”
I’ve seen Democrats say some pretty rough things on social media about the governor but nothing like that.
Contrast that with what state Sen. Chap Petersen, D-Fairfax, had to say after he lost in Tuesday’s primary: “The results last night were not what we expected but that happens in a democracy. Congratulations to Saddam Azla Salim who is the Democratic nominee in the 37th Senate district. My term in office and my season in politics is coming to a close. I want to thank everyone who helped me in any way …” Well, you get the idea. He went on to say of his campaign: “It didn’t work this time and I bear all responsibility.”
I could write a column about graciousness, civility and the decline of personal responsibility but that seems too easy. The two contrasting statements above seem to suffice without any elaboration on my part. Instead, let’s focus on March’s core complaint: that she was outspent, and, more importantly, that “elections can and are being bought every single day!”
Is she right?
It’s certainly true that she was outspent. The latest campaign finance reports show that Williams a) raised more money than any other Republican House candidate in the state and b) raised more money than all but one other House candidate, period. Democrat Rae Cousins in Richmond raised the most.
By contrast, March raised very little money. Going into the final two months of the campaign, she had just $3,543 on hand. By contrast, Jasmine Lipscomb, an aspiring candidate from Danville whom the local Democratic committee didn’t want to nominate, had more than that.
Over the course of their two years in office, Williams raised $373,254, March $65,531.
But is that why she lost?
The role of money in politics is overrated. Yes, money matters — it’s always better to have more than the other side — but it’s not the sole determinant of success, as we’ll see below. There’s always a chicken-and-egg quality to money and politics. Did Williams win because he had more money? Or did he have more money because a lot of contributors figured he was going to win, and they wanted to be on the winning side? Some donors are ideological; they want to back certain types of conservatives or liberals. Others are more transactional, and those are the donors who find it advantageous to back winning candidates. Many business-related groups fall into this category; they might prefer Democrats or Republicans but ultimately they prefer that whoever is in the legislature be well-disposed toward them. This is why incumbents almost always raise more money than challengers, and why some donors give to both sides. Hampton Roads had a state Senate primary with two incumbents, the Democratic mirror of the Williams-March race. Some donors gave to both candidates — Louise Lucas and Lionel Spruill — because it was unclear who was going to win. March may consider that “the swamp” but if Republican donors had thought she had a chance, they’d likely have given to her, too. March’s voting record wasn’t that out of line with other Republicans; what distinguished her — in a negative way — was how she spent much of her time bashing her own party’s leadership. No wonder she couldn’t get any bills through a chamber controlled by her own party, and no wonder donors didn’t open their checkbooks for her. Those donors no doubt figured they’d get the same conservative voting record out of Williams, but with a lot less hassle.
Ultimately, though, the key isn’t whether you have more money than the other side, the question is whether you have enough money to get your message out — and whether that message is one voters want to hear.
While it’s true that most of the winning candidates Tuesday were the ones with the most money, there are plenty of examples of lesser-funded candidates winning.
Out of 22 state Senate primaries, the best-funded candidate won in 14 of them — 15 if state Sen. Jeremy McPike’s 28-vote lead holds up over Del. Elizabeth Guzman. That means in almost one-third of the races, a lesser-funded candidate won. Of those seven races where a lesser-funded candidate won, four involved lesser-funded challengers knocking off incumbents, which seems one of the hardest tricks in politics to pull off. In all, we had five incumbent senators lose on Tuesday — four of those incumbents were the best-funded candidates in their races but the money advantage didn’t keep them from losing. (The one exception was state Sen. Joe Morrissey, D-Richmond, who was vastly outspent by former Del. Lashrecse Aird of Petersburg.)
- Of the four incumbents who outspent their opponents but still lost, the biggest imbalance was in the race between Petersen and Salim. Petersen raised $643,445 to Salim’s $188,653, yet Salim won by a clear margin, 54% to 46%. All that money Petersen had didn’t make up for Salim’s message that Petersen was the Senate’s most conservative Democrat (“most conservative” being a relative term). Petersen fell victim to a Democratic base that has shifted further left, and a money advantage of nearly 3.5-1 couldn’t make up for that.
- State Sen. George Barker, D-Fairfax County, had a clear money advantage over challenger Stella Pekarsky — $911,006 to $639,435. He also had the advantage of being co-chair of the budget-writing Senate Finance Committee. Voters, though, weren’t swayed by either his seniority or his campaign treasury. They might have been swayed by a redistricting plan that put Barker before a lot of new voters. In any event, the lesser-funded Pekarsky won.
- Another example of how money doesn’t matter comes from the district where state Sen. Amanda Chase, R-Chesterfield County, was defeated. That was a three-way race and challenger Tina Ramirez raised the most money — $567,887, to $542,868 for former state Sen. Glen Sturtevant and $287,585 for Chase. Even though Ramirez led the money race, she lost the actual race, finishing third and last. Sturtevant won, edging Chase by a narrow margin even though he had twice as much money.
- Finally, there was the senator vs. senator matchup between Louise Lucas, D-Portsmouth, and Lionel Spruill, D-Chesapeake. Spruill had more money by a small margin — $998,388 to $955,007 — but Lucas won by a clear margin of 53% to 47%. Given how close their amounts were, this may not be the best example; they were effectively tied for cash. Still, the candidate with the most didn’t win.
Now we turn to three races without incumbents where a lesser-funded candidate won. Interestingly, all three of these involve delegates running for Senate seats.
- In eastern Southside, former NASCAR driver Hermie Sadler of Emporia outraised Del. Emily Brewer of Suffolk in their Republican primary, $679,534 to $423,580. But she won decisively, with almost 59% of the vote.
- In Norfolk, Andria McClellan outraised Del. Angelia Williams Graves $453,835 to $366,094, but Williams Graves cruised to 63% of the vote in their Democratic primary.
- And then there was that eight-way Republican primary for a state Senate nomination in the northern Shenandoah Valley. John Massoud raised the most, $267,838. Timmy French was second with $193,229. Massoud’s money advantage brought him a fifth-place finish, with just 8% of the vote. French took first with just under 33% of the vote. Massoud seemed to have enough money to get his message out there but whatever Massoud was selling, voters just weren’t buying.
Out of 25 House primaries, the best-funded candidate won in 21, leaving four exceptions.
- In the Democratic primary in House District 19 in parts of Fairfax County and Prince William County, Makayla Little raised $222,962 to just $82,981 for Rozia Henson, a nearly 3-to-1 advantage, but Henson won narrowly, 38.8% to 37.2%.
- In the Democratic primary for House District 82 in Petersburg and Dinwiddie County, Victor McKenzie had far more money than Kimberly Pope Adams. He raised $187,229 to her $97,254. Despite that financial deficit, she took almost 61% of the vote.
- In the Democratic primary for House District 92 in Norfolk and Chesapeake, Kim Suddereth raised $79,662 to $44,089 for Bonita Anthony — nearly twice as much. But Anthony squeaked out a win of 52% to 48%.
- In the four-way Democratic primary for House District 96 in Virginia Beach, three candidates outraised the eventual winner. Sue Hippen raised $119,589, Sean Monteiro $74,609, Brandon Hutchins $55,726 and Del. Kelly Fowler just $18,618. Put another way, Hippen outraised Fowler by 6.4-to-1. And yet, Fowler won the primary, with third-place money man Hutchins second, money-leading Hippen third and second-place money man Monteiro fourth.
I realize each of these races may have unique local circumstances that helped dictate the outcome, but that’s also the point. Money sure helps but it doesn’t dictate the outcomes. So, no, elections can’t be bought — as long as the other side can get their message out and there are enough people who agree with it. March’s problem wasn’t “the swamp,” because that district had the highest turnout of any Republican House primary in the state; it seems reasonable to assume that voters in places such as Dry Pond and Gunville and Scott’s Tanyard probably don’t see themselves as Richmond insiders. And her problem wasn’t money, either — she surely didn’t lack name identification in the district. Her problem was that two-thirds of the Republican voters simply wanted someone else.
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