Sharon Hoffman has given tens of thousands of dollars to political candidates over the years — Democrats mostly, but an occasional Republican.
When a campaign needs to raise money, her name usually shows up on a list of those who can help.
Has her phone been ringing recently? “Constantly,” the Kansas Citian said this week, chuckling.
Most of the nation’s attention has focused on visible politics this summer: debates, speeches, websites, Twitter posts, news stories. It’s all about Donald and Hillary and Jeb and Joe, and other campaigns for other jobs.
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But the most critical work for next year’s election season is actually taking place well below the public’s radar. It’s the relentless quest for campaign cash, the money candidates believe they’ll need to take their case to voters next year.
“Eighty to 90 percent of a candidate’s time on all statewide campaigns, right now, is call-time fundraising,” said Marcus Leach, a Kansas City consultant working on a campaign for lieutenant governor in Missouri. “Campaigns are marathons of fundraising.”
Raising cash for campaigns is as old as electoral politics, of course. But political pros say the new ways candidates must use to reach voters, and the potential of unlimited secret spending by outside groups, require them to raise more money, more quickly, than ever before.
“Campaigns are getting much, much more expensive every year, so much more time is spent raising money,” said Miles Rapoport, national president of Common Cause, a group seeking a reduced role for money in politics. “And, at the last minute, someone could drops tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars into a race,” forcing candidates to raise money for a response.
By some estimates, more than $12 billion will be spent on political advertising across the nation this year and next. That would be a record.
Missouri campaigns raised $147 million in 2012, according to the National Institute on Money in State Politics, almost 50 percent more than in 2008. Fundraising in 2016 — with a crowded governor’s race, unlimited state donations and a competitive U.S. Senate race — could top the 2012 level.
Rapoport thinks all that money is harmful. “It’s totally unhealthy for our democracy,” he said.
Some consultants and candidates disagree. Large donations could pose a conflict of interest, they concede, but smaller gifts — $50, say, or $100 — simply reflect a citizen’s support for a candidate’s approach to public concerns.
And there’s a growing discussion about whether campaigns are wasting much of what they raise and spend. Donald Trump leads in many polls, for example, but has spent about $2 million — a fraction of what some other presidential candidates have invested in their campaigns.
Still, the pros say amassing private contributions remains the most critical component of any modern campaign. “You need the resources to push back,” said Larry Jacob, a political consultant who works with Kansas City Mayor Sly James.
Some of that means new approaches, through emails and data-based appeals for cash. But it mostly means phone calls in the summer and fall.
And candidates hate it. Nothing else comes close.
Former Kansas City Mayor Kay Barnes ran for Congress in 2008. She raised and spent $2.8 million.
She compared her fundraising experience to a root canal. “It is uncomfortable,” she recalled. “It’s magnified by feeling the need to call time and time again. And what’s worst of all is making cold calls to people around the country, asking for help.”
Some candidates dislike the experience so much they hire outside fundraising consultants, who can earn hundreds of thousands of dollars arranging contributions for campaigns.
But consultants do more than help with an unpleasant task. They link donors with candidates. They can also help organize fundraising events.
Jason Kander, now running for the U.S. Senate seat in Missouri, paid a Washington D.C.-based fundraising consultant $60,000 this spring and summer, Federal Election Commission records show, for fundraising help and expenses. Sen. Roy Blunt, the GOP incumbent and Kander’s opponent, paid a fundraising consultant $18,000 over the same time period.
The fundraising industry is shy about a public discussion of its work. Several fundraising consultants declined interview requests from The Star or did not respond to emailed requests for comment.
Political advisers in Missouri and Kansas said the work of fundraising consultants is important, but has not replaced direct contact from candidates. Here, most donors still expect to talk directly with the recipients of their largesse.
“The fundamentals of having a candidate on the phone, making a direct ‘ask,’ continue,” Jacob said. “Events are unwieldy and expensive, and you don’t have a firm commitment. … People want to talk to you, have a sense of you.”
The impact of those often awkward conversations will become more clear later this month, when campaign fundraising reports for the third quarter are officially released.
Some candidates aren’t waiting, in part because impressive summer fundraising figures can intimidate potential opponents.
OnTuesday, Rep. Kevin Yoder’s campaign said it had raised $1 million this year, for example, giving it $2 million for next year’s campaign. Yoder is expected to face token opposition in his heavily Republican Kansas district, in part because his campaign bank account is so fat.
Kander’s campaign said it raised $825,000 in the third quarter, giving the Democrat $2.3 million in donations this year. Blunt’s campaign said it was still adding up the numbers, but expects to have raised more than Kander in July, August and September.
Other candidates have obviously been busy, too. In Missouri’s statewide and local races, where political donations are uncapped, contributors gave more than $10 million in the third quarter — if you count just the gifts of $5,000 or more. That’s an average of more than $111,000 a day, a year before voters go to the polls.
Campaign spending in Missouri may further grow if wealthy candidates support themselves, as some are expected to do. Multi-million dollar donations from outsiders may also affect the state’s fundraising.
Presidential donations are limited, but Kansas and Missouri remain fertile grounds for donations. FEC records show presidential campaigns scooped up almost $1.4 million from Missouri and Kansas donors through the end of June, about 5 percent of what they’re eventually expected to raise in the two states.
Candidates for president are releasing fundraising figures for the third quarter — with some surprises. Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont, a Democrat, claims he raised $26 million in the third quarter, just slightly behind Hillary Clinton’s $28 million. Clinton’s spouse, Bill, recently raised money for her campaign at a fundraiser in Leawood.
But Rapoport, with Common Cause, says direct spending and fundraising by candidates is only part of his concern. The explosive growth of so-called nonprofit social welfare groups has also increased the demand for donations.
Gifts to the nonprofits are secret. Donors funnel hundreds of millions of dollars into the companies’ accounts, which are then used to buy political advertising.
“Some (outside groups) are just raising money for a war chest,” he explained. “So then when they see which races are competitive, and where they can swing a race with a late money dump, they’ll do it.”
Outside spending could dwarf spending by candidates’ campaigns next year. By some estimates, outside spending could triple the amount spent by campaigns and their committees.
All of this means lots of calls for cash this year. In April, Sharon Hoffman gave Hillary Clinton the maximum for the primary — $2,700. If Clinton is the Democratic nominee, Hoffman will likely write another check for the general election.
She thinks it makes a difference. “The outcome of the elections is really important,” she said. “It’s like giving to a cause or a charity.”