Primary takeaways: Vouchers not Votes, Endorsements and Money Dominate

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This story first appeared on Washington Observer

One Seattle mayoral candidate is on the brink of a unique political achievement: He persuaded more people to give him money than vote for him. Andrew Grant Houston, an architect and former City Council staffer, has been running a youth-focused campaign fueled by the city’s democracy-voucher program.

The Seattle democracy-voucher program sends every voter in the city four $25 vouchers that can be given as campaign contributions. The money comes from a small increase in property taxes approved by voters when they adopted the system a few years ago.

Houston’s campaign was particularly adept at harvesting these valuable pieces of paper, collecting almost 14,000 of the vouchers, worth nearly $350,000, according to the Seattle Ethics and Elections Commission. Overall, he had more than 5,000 donors. All that dough didn’t translate to votes, though; just 2,570 people filled in the bubble for Houston as of Wednesday’s vote tally. That will grow as more votes come in, but he’s highly unlikely to pull in as many votes as donors.

Democracy vouchers have become a kind of pseudo-money, valuable to political campaigns that can use them as real cash. The Houston campaign harvested them enthusiastically.

Now Houston isn’t the only mayoral candidate to raise a ton of money through the system. Candidates for city offices raised about $1.9 million in vouchers this cycle. City Councilmember Lorena Gonzalez, who’s advancing by a wide margine to the November general election, raised more than $276,000. Also-rans Colleen Echohawk and Jessyn Farrell, both of whom finished far back of the two front-runners, raised about $300,000 apiece.

What’s interesting is that Houston’s campaign doesn’t seem to have spent much of that money — or much money at all — actually trying to get elected.

Here’s why you should care about this: The democracy-voucher program, combined with other changes in the city’s campaign finance laws we wrote about recently, have essentially moved a big chunk of the political spending in municipal elections onto the taxpayers’ dime. Meanwhile, the vouchers themselves are a kind of pseudo-money that has no other value to the holder. Persuading people to part with them is apparently much easier than asking for real cash. Such a change was bound to have some unintended consequences.

A review of the Houston campaign’s spending disclosures shows only about $70,000 spent on online advertising, mailings, and other direct voter outreach. There was no TV time and no polling, for example. Meanwhile, there’s more than $100,000 in fundraising and canvassing costs, most of which went to Prism West, a political consultancy with experience doing signature-gathering work on ballot initiative campaigns. The detail of the payments indicates the campaign was running a robust door-to-door canvassing operation to harvest the democracy vouchers. It also employed an unusually large number of staffers, especially given its heavy spend on consultants.

We should note that the disclosure numbers are incomplete because they only cover spending through July 26. Disclosure on the last week of the campaign isn’t due until next month, and it looks like Grant still had about $80,000 in hand.

By comparison, González’s campaign had spent more than $82,000 on TV, nearly $60,000 on two different polls, and some $50,000 on direct mail through July 26. Her fundraising costs were just $24,000 to Katherine Bobman, a political fundraising consultant whose clients include Attorney General Bob Ferguson.

It’s far easier to raise money — including democracy vouchers — for the president of the city council than for an unknown like Houston. But the fact that the Houston campaign appears to have spent most of its money on raising money and paying its consultants and campaign staffers raises the question of whether it was essentially a moneymaking exercise more than an attempt to get elected.

To be clear, Houston was always unlikely to finish anywhere near the top two, but fewer voters than donors is a uniquely low bar. And while many candidates run with no real hoping of winning, few do so while raking in hundreds of thousands of dollars in public money.

I sent questions to the campaign and to Prism West. So far we haven’t heard back. Next month’s final disclosure from the Houston campaign may make interesting reading.

Other takeaways from the primary results

Money and name recognition remain pretty good trump cards.

In the Seattle mayor’s race, where former Councilmember Bruce Harrell and current Councilmember Lorena Gonález advanced to the primary. The two candidates were the richest by far when you count the independent committees supporting them. Both campaigns spent more than $350,000 directly and both benefited from six-figure spending by independents committees. As we noted last week, Harrell’s outside support comes mostly from rich folks in the commercial property world, while Gonzalez got her help from two labor unions.

Harrell led with 38 percent of the vote as of Wednesday’s count after running a campaign aimed a the rightward end of the city’s left-leaning electorate. If that holds up, it puts him 10 points ahead of current mayor Jenny Durkan’s primary percentage four years ago. But with 29 percent of the vote, Gonález, who ran hard to the left, is also well ahead of 2017 runner-up Cary Moon, who barely squeaked out of the primary. Durkan went on to win easily, which bodes well for Harrell, but González is a far more formidable opponent than Moon was. So look for a tough race ahead.

Their success in the primary is a testament to the enduring power of media endorsements, something we wrote about last month. Harrell got The Seattle Times nod, while González got the full-throated support of The Stranger. Four years ago, the Stranger kinda-sorta split its endorsement, leading to Moon edging out Nikkita Oliver in the primary.

There were a couple of unexpectedly poor showings by Colleen Echohawk, the leader of a homelessness nonprofit whose campaign raised the most money, and former state Rep. Jessyn Farrell, who enjoyed the support of a six-figure independent committee bankrolled by rich progressives. Both candidates will wind up spending roughly half a million dollars to finish in the high single digits after trying to stake out territory between Harrell and González.

Also-rans on the right end of the spectrum did even worse, with Art Langlie, the grandson of former Gov. Arthur B. Langlie, getting less than 6 percent of the vote and former Deputy Mayor Casey Sixkiller pulling in less than 4 percent.

Constantine holds off Nguyen with more than half the vote

At the county level, King County Executive Dow Constantine was pulling in more than 53 percent of the vote after Wednesday’s tally, a commanding lead over state Sen. Joe Nguyen, who’s coming at Constantine from the left. As we’ve noted before, Constantine has a massive fundraising advantage, which allowed him to advertise on television and carpet-bomb the county with mailers ahead of the primary. Nguyen’s camp hopes that late-arriving ballots will push Constantine under 50 percent, dangerous territory for an incumbent.

Seattle City Attorney race likely to feature two challengers

Challengers Ann Davison and Nicole Thomas-Kennedy look likely to edge three-term incumbent Pete Holmes out of office and set up a contest of stark contrasts. Davison, who ran for lieutenant governor as a Republican last year, came after Holmes from the law-and-order right over his reluctance to prosecute most minor crimes related to homelessness. Thomas-Kennedy, meanwhile, is a former public defender running as an abolitionist who wants to end most city prosecutions. Holmes was narrowly ahead of Thomas-Kennedy as of Wednesday afternoon, but the late-arriving vote is likely to trend her way.

To our earlier point about endorsements: Davison got The Seattle Times; Thomas-Kennedy the Stranger. Davison’s path to victory in November looks rocky, though. Some two-thirds of voters chose Holmes or the candidate to his left. Also, that R label doesn’t really play in Seattle.

All that Realtor money left some marks

One of the surprises in Tuesday’s vote was Sara Nelson’s first-place showing in an open race for the Seattle City Council. Nelson, who ran third in a 2017 primary for City Council, finished ahead of progressive activist Nikkita Oliver. Oliver was widely expected to win thanks to a robust following from a 2017 run for mayor. Nelson, the founder of Seattle’s Fremont Brewing, was the beneficiary of a $30,000 mailer sent out by the Washington Realtors PAC late in the campaign, part of a pattern of aggressive spending in local races.

Nelson has raised about $250,000 directly for her campaign and figures to draw aggressive support from elsewhere in the business community. Oliver, meanwhile, has raised nearly $200,000 and can expect strong support from organized labor.

The Realtors made their presence felt elsewhere as well. In Vancouver, that massive $162,000 effort for John Blom, a former Republican Clark County Council member running for the city council, helped carry him through the primary in that D-leaning city.

And in Spokane, two Realtor-backed candidates, Mike Lish and Jonathan Bingle, advanced in the primaries for open city council seats. (An earlier version of this story reported incorrectly that both Lish and Bingle were winning their primaries. Lish is currently in second place.) The Realtors and allies in the business community have spent heavily in Spokane politics in recent years. It’s all about land-use policy.

This article first appeared in the author’s substack blog, The Washington Observer.

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Paul Queary, a veteran AP reporter and editor, is founder of The Washington Observer, an independent newsletter on politics, government and the influence thereof in Washington State.

1 COMMENT

  1. I’m probably one of those couple thousand people who sent a democracy voucher or two to AGH but didn’t end up voting for him. Early on, I wanted to see him to have funding to develop his platform and message, but ultimately went for González. If we had a ranked-choice system, he would have been a top choice.

    Nikkita Oliver’s pronouns are they/them, and I think Brianna Thomas managed to swoon many of Oliver’s center-leaning supporters.

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