Does big money yield victories?

Published 3:04 am Sunday, March 7, 2010

Staff Writer

Editor’s note: This is the second installment in an occasional series on campaign finance.
Some Beaufort County candidates are highly effective campaign fundraisers, while others are not.
Since 2000, most Beaufort County commissioner candidates haven’t raised enough money to cross a former $3,000 reporting threshold, elections records revealed.
Some candidates have raised well in excess of $3,000.
Though outspending opponents didn’t always guarantee victory in the past few elections, the records demonstrate that most of the winning candidates had healthier campaign accounts than their competitors.
Excluding state House and Senate, the largest amounts expended on local races were in the battles for Beaufort County sheriff, but perhaps the biggest disparities in collected cash were in the county-commissioner contests.
One county commissioner contended that he raised a large amount of money out of necessity.
Another commissioner expressed fear that an inability to accumulate significant funds might prove an insurmountable barrier to some qualified candidates.
Leader of the pack
It appeared that Democratic Commissioner Robert Cayton led the pack among the warring commissioner-fundraisers in 2008.
The Committee to Elect Robert Cayton posted more than $14,700 in total receipts in 2008, the year Cayton ran for re-election.
In that same year, eight other commissioner candidates didn’t exceed the $3,000 threshold, according to elections records.
Cayton raised about $10,000 from individuals, but he also showed he was willing to spend his own money on the race.
Cayton lent his campaign committee $4,590.42, a debt that was forgiven when he closed out his account. In all, Cayton poured $8,671 of his own money into the campaign.
The committee reported operating expenditures of $8,883.92.
Asked why it was necessary to raise so much cash, Cayton replied, “The necessity was it was a tight race.”
Cayton, an Aurora resident, said he hails from a less-populated area than some of his former opponents. He said he had to reach out to voters countywide.
“I had to touch every voter in Beaufort County,” he said.
Cayton said his single largest expense was postage for mailers advertising his candidacy.
The Washington Daily News asked Cayton whether the big money sometimes required to run a campaign weeds out less-qualified candidates or gives an unfair advantage to people who enjoy better fundraising prowess.
In response, he said both statements might be true.
“I think every citizen has a right to run for office,” he affirmed.
He agreed that some talented office-seekers can’t attract necessary money, or choose not to.
As for the growth of fundraising, he said, “I think it has the potential for a growing trend.”
Growing trend or not, campaign-reporting numbers will look different this year because changes in state election law could lead to more transparency in who is giving what to whom.
The former $3,000 reporting threshold has been lowered to $1,000, according to Kellie Harris Hopkins, Beaufort County’s elections director.
“This year we’re really going to be able to see where it goes,” Hopkins said.
Unfortunate necessity?
At one time, local races were fairly inexpensive, but now more money is involved, said Jerry Langley, chairman of the Beaufort County Board of Commissioners.
Langley, a Democrat, said average spending for local commissioner candidates has stayed pretty much level at around $3,000.
Of the better-funded candidates, he said, “They force everybody else in the field to try to keep up.”
Everything from signs to air time on local radio stations is costly, Langley said.
“You have to utilize everything that’s available to you to get your message out so that the people understand exactly who you are,” he said.
People who are capable of holding office but can’t raise the money to mount a serious attack can be thinned out by the drive for dollars, he said.
“You can have a perfectly viable candidate who just doesn’t have the resources and you place them at a disadvantage,” Langley said.
Republican Commissioner Jay McRoy said he looks for ways to hold down his campaign costs, noting that he saved the signs he distributed two years ago.
“After the election, I took them all up,” McRoy said. “I’ve still got them.”
The limited-voting method of electing county commissioners makes these races more expensive because commissioner hopefuls must run countywide and not in districts, he said.
“I would do things different if I was just running from my area,” he said.
He added, “As of yet, I don’t think the commissioner campaigns have become so expensive that a good, qualified candidate wouldn’t be able to run if they wanted to.”
McRoy expressed surprise when told how much money some of his colleagues had been able to attract, saying he hadn’t seen their campaign reports.
“I need to get them to start donating to my campaign,” he joked.
Some Beaufort County candidates
who led the pack in fundraising,
2000 to present
Sheriff Alan Jordan (Democrat):
— 2002: $49,326.72
— 2006: $25,410
(Jordan won both elections)
Tommy Miller (Republican), Jordan’s general-election opponent:
— 2002: $27,383.98
(Miller lost)
County commissioner
Commissioner Robert Cayton (Democrat):
— 2004: $6,159
— 2008: $14,754.21
(Cayton won in 2004 and was re-elected in 2008)
Former Commissioner Mickey Cochran (Democrat):
— 2000: $9,518
(Cochran lost in the primary)
Former commissioner candidate Cameron DeJong (Libertarian):
— 2000: $4,714
— 2002: $12,920
(DeJong lost both elections)
Former Commissioner Carolyn Harding (Democrat):
— 2000: $6,075
(Harding won)
Former Commissioner Carol Cochran (Republican):
— 2002: $4,283
(Cochran won)
Clerk of court
Clerk of Court Tom Payne (Democrat):
— 2002: $3,301
(Payne, the longtime clerk, was re-elected and later retired.)
Clerk of court candidate Tim Melton (Republican):
— 2002: $9,809
(This was one of the few local examples in which a better-funded candidate lost to his less-well-funded competitor.)
Source: Public records available at the Beaufort County Board of Elections. This list is not comprehensive, but it does provide a sample of some of the larger amounts raised by local candidates over the past nine years.