Thursday, December 8, 2022

Cash and the county: How money in local politics can bump hometown races

Supporters stand for the Pledge of Allegiance ahead of Lara Trump’s arrival at a campaign held at New Hanover County GOP headquarters earlier this month. (Port City Daily photo/Mark Darrough)
Supporters stand for the Pledge of Allegiance ahead of Lara Trump’s arrival at a campaign held at New Hanover County GOP headquarters earlier this month. (Port City Daily photo/Mark Darrough)

NEW HANOVER COUNTY — County-based political parties are not the most exorbitant of operations. While lacking sky-high budgets and far-reaching platforms, political offices in New Hanover County still play a consequential role in local elections. 

With the clock ticking until Election Day, both local factions of the major political parties are wagering their strategy will yield a hometown victory.  There are some key differences in how Republican and Democrat county leaders prepared for the upcoming contest, which among other things will define the board of commissioners for at least the next two years. 

Related: With traditional campaigning impossible, social media takes the spotlight in local elections covid

Campaign finance reports published this week show the New Hanover Democratic Party had a slight cash edge moving into the final two weeks of election season. As of Oct. 17, they reported $47,000 in the bank. The local Republican Party followed closely with nearly $43,000. 

Since July, building on previous contributions, Democrats raised roughly $32,000 and spent $24,000. Republicans dwarfed those figures, raising $92,000 with expenditures of $88,000. 

“The money only flows where there’s excitement,” said New Hanover County GOP head Will Knecht, who considers an enthusiastic local donor base to be one of his group’s greatest assets. 

“Obviously we run a leaner operation than they do,” said Knecht’s counterpart for the Democrats, Richard Poole. “But I view our fundraising this year as pretty successful.”

July through mid-October, the Democratic Party reported 41 outgoing transactions; Republicans tripled that number. In contributions, Democrats listed 274 and Republicans just over 600.

The GOP invests in web design, digital strategy and data gathering. They support hometown campaign operations, and help bankroll costs for local Trump campaign events. They stacked up on Trump yard signs and Trump face masks, and spent big on office supplies. 

Democrats, in turn, keep a more streamlined budget. They too have printing costs for “lit-drops,” and like the Republicans, got a healthy cash influx from the state-level party organization. The state party sent just over $5,000 to New Hanover Dems, while NCGOP sent just over $7,000 to its county affiliate since July.

“As far as how they decided to distribute the money I wasn’t privy to that,” Poole said. “I think it’s a situation where national organizations are funneling money into swing state parties and the state party.” 

Knecht and Poole both hold their equal in the opposition party with high regard. Though they think their counterpart has the wrong idea about how to govern, both party leaders, while clashing in ideals, can share in the love for billboards.

Billboard company Lamar received more than $5,000 from Democrats in recent months and a similar figure from Republicans.  The GOP put another $15,000 into a billboard blitz through Wilmington-based Cornerstone Marketing.

Facebook also represented a major slice of the budget for the GOP, with bills for advertisements totaling more than $13,000. Knecht said the party’s advertisements for its three board of commissioners candidates — Deb Hays, Bill Rivenbark and Skip Watkins — have garnered over 1.5 million impressions to date. Board of Education candidates also receive Facebook boosts from the local GOP, which has banked heavily on social media engagement being a deciding factor in the upcoming contest.

Democrats sent a Chicago-based marketing company more than $5,000 for an operation that saw a wide disbursement of brochures and other literature to voters’ doors. They also contract with NGP Van, a web-hosting server affiliated with the Democratic National Committee, to handle their email server, donor data storage and other needs for a relatively low cost, around $1,000 since July.

In terms of contributions, the Democrats have only a few individuals willing to shell out more than $1,000 to the party itself in short order, while the Republican Party has a robust collection of return donors who individually contribute more than $1,000 to the party. 

Local insurance heavyweight Hank Estep, husband of longtime school board member Lisa Estep, gave $6,000 to the local GOP since late August— more than the combined contributions of Democrats’ top-five biggest donors in the same time frame. 

“Hank has been a gentleman I’ve gone to a number of times over the last couple of years for wisdom,” Knecht said. “He knows the lay of the land very, very well and has given me great counsel.”

For the individual campaigns themselves, it’s a different story. Though all third-quarter campaign finance reports for board of commissioners candidates are not yet  available, Democrat candidates sturdily outraised Republicans in the second quarter (February-June). 

One of the more noticeable disparities between the parties’ finances is the cost each pays for rent; and furthermore, what their rent cost says about their style of campaigning. The Democrats — stationed on New Center Drive, off College Road near UNCW — are one tenant in a larger office complex. Poole and his party pay $500 per month in rent.

“We like to try to keep the continuing expenses down and spend the money we get to benefit our candidates,” he said. “I don’t think we need to spend more on our office; we’re happy with the one we’ve got.”

Knecht and the Republicans, by contrast, have a short-term lease on a building on Market Street, adjacent to the downtown YMCA. They pay $3,000 a month in rent for the high-traffic location and infrastructure the building provides.

“I’ve never been in Richard’s offices, but my guess is ours are a bit larger,” Knecht said. “I do know that ours are much more prominent. It’s not, for us, just a sunken cost.” 

Republican operations are indeed constantly humming at the Market Street office building. Liaisons from the Trump campaign are stationed there, as are the campaign offices of U.S. Congressman David Rouzer. In recent months, Rouzer held a campaign event at the office building, as did the president’s daughter-in-law, Lara Trump. 

Though the heavy lifting for local races is done by the candidates themselves, the local political parties provide a common infrastructure and resources for their team members to draw on. If the parties are able to take some of the burden off the candidates — who are under immense pressure to make every dollar count given the campaigning restrictions in place due to Covid-19 — it could just tip the scales. 

“It’s been billboards, it’s been Facebook, it’s been social media,” Knecht said. “It’s all been about promoting our candidates.”


Send tips and comments to Preston Lennon at preston@localdailymedia.com

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