RI Pols Are Overhyping Fundraising Prowess

Occupy's Best Visual Summation (via Oregon Live)

Perhaps I should be amazed and shocked by the “extraordinary” fundraising numbers that Barry Hinckley put up recently: over $300,000 by the end of the first quarter of 2012. I’m sure Mr. Hinckley’s campaign would like me to be. They certainly don’t want me to focus on the nearly ten times as much sitting U.S. Senator Sheldon Whitehouse had in his war chest last quarter.

But the fact is that I’m not. According to the tools provided by the Sunlight Foundation, 83% of the cash he’d raised through 2011 was from out-of-state donors. $50,000 of it is his own.

The Sunlight Foundation isn’t really clear on where Mr. Whitehouse’s money is coming from this year, mainly “Victory Funds”. But perhaps he doesn’t need it this year, after all, he gave nearly half a million dollars to himself to finance his successful campaign in 2006 (for the record, Mr. Whitehouse’s funding is 82% out-of-state).

But it’d be wrong to assume that our Class 1 Senate race alone attracts such strong self-financing; it’s typical of most of the state. The overall largest portions of our most prominent politicians’ campaigns come from themselves. Take Gina Raimondo. She raised nearly  a million dollars during the 2009-2010 cycle, and had a virtual 50-50 in-state vs. out-of-state contribution. But of the roughly $445,000 she raised in-state, $100,000 came from: Gina Raimondo.

It’s no better in U.S. Congressional District 1. Brendan Doherty: $50,000 raised from Brendan Doherty. Anthony Gemma’s already started raising money from himself, and he doesn’t announce until the 15th! Though, you have to go back to the ’09-’10 cycle to see Mr. Gemma’s real fundraising prowess: virtually all of his cash came from himself, especially in the waning days of the campaign (at least it’s in-state). David Cicilline’s numbers aren’t up for the ’11-’12 cycle, but he gave himself a pick-me up in the final day of the 2010 campaign, he gave himself $70,000.

The gubernatorial race wasn’t much better; nearly $100,000 donated to Frank Caprio came from the candidate himself. Now-Governor Lincoln Chafee gave over $1.5 million to himself.

In contrast to all of this, seven candidates ran in four races using public financing; as statewide candidates are allowed to do under the law. Of them, only A. Ralph Mollis and Peter Kilmartin won their races, for Secretary of State and Attorney General, respectively. The others, all Republicans and one Moderate, all lost. There’s a special irony in Republicans using public financing for campaigns, but given the tough fundraising hurdles any Republican candidate must face (namely, the perception of being about to lose), they do need to use anything that comes to their disposal.

The problem with all this is not that candidates self-fund, it’s that candidates will then use their fundraising numbers as a shorthand for how much support they have. “I have $1.5 million raised,” they’ll tell us. Rhode Islanders would be wrong to assume that number represents the willingness of Rhode Islanders to invest their money in such candidates. It most likely represents how much the candidate has invested in their own campaign. No wonder Rhode Island rarely gets regular folks to run for office. They can’t afford it.

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A native-born Rhode Islander, educated in Providence Public Schools, went to college in North Carolina and a political junkie and pessimistic optimist.

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