Analysis: Spending big doesn't guarantee D.C. election win

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Local,DC,Liz Farmer

In District politics, the business of unseating an incumbent council member requires a sizable war chest. But a Washington Examiner analysis has shown that how much is spent on voters does not necessarily translate into victory.

In April's primary election, the Democratic council candidates' successful and unsuccessful campaigns spent anywhere from $1.21 per vote received to $88.48, The Examiner has found.

"The great disparity even between winning campaigns shows no one has yet to crack the financial formula for running a wining campaign in the District," said consultant Chuck Thies.

Votes by the dollar
Council candidate/WardTotal spentVotesPer vote
Jack Evans*/2$260,764.662,947$88.48
Vincent Orange*/at large$169,652.3823,719$7.15
Yvette Alexander*/7$138,709.433,730$37.19
Muriel Bowser*/4$104,827.667,541$13.90
Peter Shapiro/at large$100,955.166,206$16.27
Marion Barry*/8$93,353.135,116$18.25
Sekou Biddle/at large$62,259.8921,973$2.83
Max Skolnik/4$42,519.081,042$40.81
Kevin Chavous/7$39,626.581,916$20.68
Renee Bowser/4$38,271.621,523$25.13
Tom Brown/7$34,977.941,950$17.94
Bill Bennett/7$15,516.45892$17.40
Jacque Patterson/8$11,519.57568$20.28
Natalie Williams/8$7,213.27485$14.87
Gail Holness/at large$5,260.614,348$1.21
Sandra Seegars/8$5,031.27549$9.16
Source: D.C. Office of Campaign Finance, D.C. Board of Elections & Ethics
* Incumbent

Most incumbents cruised to renomination by spending an average of between $13 and $19 per vote in the four ward races. For the at-large council seat, a citywide race, most Democratic candidates spent less than $8 per vote.

But Ward 2 Councilman Jack Evans outspent the entire field by more than double with his $88.48 per vote -- or $260,765 total -- in a race with low voter turnout as he ran uncontested.

In no race did challengers outspend incumbents. But in crowded races, incumbents got varying value for their dollar. Ward 4 Councilwoman Muriel Bowser's per-vote cost was just under $14 while her closest opponents spent $25 and $41 per vote. In Ward 7, Councilwoman Yvette Alexander ended up paying $37 per vote, more than twice what her nearest contender paid.

At-Large Councilman Vincent Orange, who narrowly won his party's nomination, fell in the middle of his field for spending efficiency.

Those who are more vulnerable -- as Alexander and Orange were thought to be by analysts-- were forced to spend more per vote compared to their opponents. But spending a lot of money, as unsuccessful at-large challenger Peter Shapiro did, isn't the only key to beating an incumbent. In that race, Sekou Biddle, a third challenger, got better bang for his buck but lost by more than 1,700 votes to Orange.

The missing ingredient in most of the challengers' campaigns was time, according to Thies, who said they all entered their races too late. And time is money.

"If [Biddle] had $50,000 more or four or five more months, he could have made up those 1,700 votes," Thies said.

He pointed to 2004 when now-Chairman Kwame Brown unseated at-large Councilman Harold Brazil.

"[Brown] worked his tail off -- he was in the field for well over a year," Thies said. "That and Harold Brazil got caught up in a series of unflattering, front-page Washington Post stories. But [Brazil's defeat] wouldn't have happened if Brown wasn't in the race early."

lfarmer@washingtonexaminer.com

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