At first glance, one might think Cristina McNeil a scofflaw.
Congressional candidates must file reports with the Federal Election Commission after their campaigns raise or spend $5,000. McNeil, who won the Democratic primary in Idaho’s 1stcongressional district on May 15, has filed no such reports.
Her spending came in under the threshold, so she didn’t have to.
“I really think it’s interesting,” McNeil, who sells real estate, says with a laugh. “It really was interesting.”
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This is the counterpoint to all the discussion of the skyrocketing cost of running for office: Improbably enough, a handful of candidates have advanced to the general election while raising and spending relatively infinitesimal sums.
As experts note, victory in a primary does not guarantee the same after a general election campaign, which almost always requires far more resources. But making it onto the November ballot in a federal race is a goal that most successful candidates spend far more trying to attain.
The 2018 election cycle marks McNeil’s first bid for Congress. On such a slim budget – she estimates that she raised and spent about $2,000 — her campaign thus far has relied on robocalls, emails, social media and Spanish-language radio to attract voters. With no paid staff, volunteers are lifeblood.
“This is a people’s campaign, if not a money-based campaign,” says Nick Tinker, McNeil’s campaign manager. “It’s so important to have the right message and the right candidate. Money can help, but money doesn’t get you there.”
Still, McNeil’s opponent in November will likely have much more of it. Former State Sen. Russ Fulcher won the Republican primary with 43.1 percent of the vote; he brought in at least $403,000 and spent at least $385,441 — more than 190 times what McNeil laid out on her race.
And Fulcher’s campaign was bolstered by over $500,000 in spending by a super PAC connected to limited-government group Club for Growth, among other groups.
Add in the fact that Idaho is a bright red state: Fulcher received more than twice as many votes as McNeil did in winning their respective primaries.
Tinker knows that all spells trouble without an active electorate.
“We’re counting on the people of Idaho to take a look at who’s the best candidate,” Tinker says. “We cannot compete with a well-funded money candidate if the voters are not seriously taking a look at what kind of representation they want in Washington.”
The cost of doing business
In all, 1,445 major-party candidates registered with the FEC for House primary elections held June 5 or earlier in 21 states. A total of 435 had claimed victory as of June 15.
On average, these 435 spent just over $510,000 each, according to their latest FEC filings. (The figure could increase as more post-primary reports are filed.)
And of the 435 victors, roughly 50 either didn’t file spending reports with the FEC or submitted reports showing they had spent $5,000 or less.
Eliminating candidates who ran unopposed leaves 23 candidates who ran competitive — and winning — primary campaigns and spent $5,000 or less. McNeil is one. So is Democrat Jeannine Lee-Lake of Indiana’s 6th Congressional District.
Lake, who is editor and publisher of The (Muncie) Good Times and chairs a charity that delivers Thanksgiving meals, estimates her campaign raised roughly $2,600.
Instead of spending money on consultants, TV ads or phone banks, Lake herself spent four to six hours a day on social media, posting pictures of events and interacting with followers. She asked local churches to put her on their prayer list.
The picture will change in the fall, though. Lake’s not running against an incumbent, but the name recognition and access to resources of her November opponent is sky-high: Greg Pence, older brother to Vice President Mike, spent nearly $1 million to win the Republican primary.
Of candidates who spent less than $5,000 and won contested party primaries (eliminating California, where all candidates regardless of party run against each other and the top two vote-getters advance to the general election), only one mustered more than half of his opponent-to-be’s primary vote: Republican Mark Callahan, running in Oregon’s 5th Congressional District, received 33,933 votes to incumbent Democratic Rep. Kurt Schrader’s 59,196.
Though impressed that candidates like McNeil and Lake could get so far on so little, Sheila Krumholz of the Center for Responsive Politics says winning a primary is getting only halfway to Washington.
According to CRP's data, first-time candidates had to spend $1.5 million to win a seat in the House during the 2016 election cycle. Forty-seven primary winners thus far – about one in nine– have already each spent $1 million, with the general election five months away; 10 of those are first-time candidates.
“The stars might align in a primary, but most candidates will not find success without showcasing pretty serious fundraising chops before the general election,” Krumholz says.
Krumholz also believes ordinary citizens on both sides of the aisle have taken the initiative to run for office because of the “unorthodox” nature of Trump presidential campaign.
“His victory is part of the disruption which is having a huge ripple effect even today and will continue to have a disruptive effect for probably years to come,” Krumholz said.
Paul Wright served as a state court judge for 22 years before entering politics, running unsuccessfully first for governor of North Carolina, then for U.S. Senate and House.
This time he emerged victorious in the GOP primary in North Carolina’s District 12, which includes Charlotte and much of Mecklenburg County – though he received just 3,221 votes, a sliver of the 38,849 taken by incumbent Rep. Alma Adams in the Democratic race.
This House seat has never been occupied by a Republican, so Wright, whose campaign has a heavily religious theme, would face an uphill battle even if he had a bigger campaign chest. He spent less than $5,000, while Adams spent more than $203,000. Wright says he’s not sure he’ll reach the FEC filing threshold even by Election Day.
But a lot of life is a matter of just showing up.
“If you don’t field a candidate, there’s a zero percent chance of winning,” said Kyle Kondik, managing editor of Sabato’s Crystal Ball, a newsletter published by the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics. “If you do field a candidate, maybe your chance of winning is .001 percent, but there is at least a chance that you could win if the incumbent blows up for some reason.”