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Candidates in state House races in Northwest Arkansas spent $1.1 million in the 2018 general election, more than twice as much as 2016, final campaign finance reports show.

The jump came with an increase in the number of candidates and how much each candidate spent. Eighteen nominees ran in 2018 compared to 10 in 2016. Expenditures in the 2016 election were $492,862, according to records from the Secretary of State's office.

NWA most expensive House races

District 84: $394,682

District 93: $196,713

District 87: $152,268

District 89: $113,390

Source: Arkansas Secretary of State

The average spent per candidate increased to $62,507 in 2018 from $49,289 in 2016, figures show. House members receive a salary of $39,400 a year.

The $1 million figure surprised her, said Rep. Robin Lundstrum, R-Elm Springs. Lundstrum's campaign was one of 2018's most expensive and she is a longtime campaign organizer in the region.

"I can remember the day when asking for a $25 or $50 campaign contribution was so painful and difficult," Lundstrum said.

"In a lot of ways, we're just catching up with the cost of campaigning in other states," she said. Figures provided by the National Institute on Money in Politics, a nonpartisan, nonprofit group with headquarters in Helena, Mont., show an average of $72,011 in campaign expense per state House seat in the 2016 election, the most recent complete figures.

Total spending reported in Northwest Arkansas' 2018 races added up to $464,270 by Democratic Party candidates for House seats and $660,852 by their GOP counterparts. Those figures do not include any expenditures by Katie McFarland, the Democratic candidate in District 90. McFarland never filed a campaign finance report, according to Secretary of State records.

Pay to Play

Republicans won all but two of the nine contested House races in the region in 2018.

Newly elected state Rep. Denise Garner, D-Fayetteville, expressed dismay at the amount spent despite having the most expensive campaign among the region's House candidates.

"It breaks my heart," she said. Garner is a coordinator of nonprofit groups in the region. "I know so many better things that money could have been used for, but you have to spend that kind of money anymore to win a race."

Republican Rep. Charlie Collins was a longtime incumbent with widespread name recognition, Garner said. That required an expensive race, she said.

"The amount of money she raised for a race up here has to be a record," Lundstrum said of Garner's race. "And she had to spend every single dime. She did the right thing on that."

Fayetteville's District 84 race between Garner and Collins was the most expensive race by far. Collins lost despite outspending Garner $242,735 to $151,947 a difference of $90,788.

Garner, in turn, outspent the rest of the area's House candidates. Her next closest rival was Gayatri Agnew of Bentonville, a Democrat who tried to unseat Rep. Jim Dotson, R-Bentonville, in the District 93 race. Agnew spent $105,697; Dotson spent $91,016.

Lundstrum was fourth in campaigning costs at $99,750 in her District 87 race against Kelly Unger, outspending Unger almost two to one.

The biggest factor in the growing expense of campaigns, according to Lundstrum, is the need to campaign by multiple means.

"It's hard to get through the clutter of media any more especially during a campaign season," she said. "You've got to have a lot of social media and print media, and the most expensive is fliers." Fliers are mailed or delivered campaign placards. They are vital to letting voters know who a candidate is and conveying basic information before the candidate knocks on the door, Lundstrum said.

"I go door to door just as much as I ever did," Lundstrum said. "The vast majority of what a candidate should do in a House race is face to face, but that is not what is more expensive and the cost of all the things going into a campaign is going up every year."

The days of winning a campaign solely by knocking on doors are gone, Lundstrum said, but a candidate who does not knock on doors and meet voters face to face will lose. Lundstrum is in her third term.

Spend to Win

The increase in campaign expenditures is almost entirely explained by the increase in the number of contested races and candidates in Northwest Arkansas compared with past years, said Jay Barth, a political science professor at Hendrix College in Conway and an author on Arkansas politics. The increase in per-candidate spending is not great, he said. However, those campaign finance figures show Democrats can raise money in the region, he said.

"It suggests there is a lot of political money in Northwest Arkansas that is untapped," Barth said. "There's always been money there for federal races, particularly from the Democratic establishment based in Fayetteville." Money for state and local races appears to be more readily available than assumed, he said.

"The Democratic Party has to win races there to grow and they know it," Barth said. "Part of this is a reflection of that." The Democratic Party held a House majority as recently as 2014, losing it in elections that year. The party held 23 of 100 seats in the House in the legislative session that began Jan. 14.

Democrats must make progress in Northwest Arkansas to rebuild their party but that will be a big uphill climb, said Terry Benham, a partner in the Impact Management Group of Little Rock, which offers political consulting. Arkansas Democrats during their party's majority were conservative Democrats.

"A conservative Democrat is an anomaly anymore," he said. Those conservative Democrats became Republicans much easier than a Republican can become a Democrat any more, he said.

As for the spending in the Northwest, Benham said candidates in the region and elsewhere are already feeling the pinch between greater and greater demands for money to run and tighter limits on contributions.

"First the cost of campaigns that are not getting cheaper, then it's harder and harder to raise money," he said. "I've been crying about that for a long time."

Both Lundstrum and Garner warned against becoming reliant on out-of-district sources for financing a campaign. A representative should be beholden to those in the district, both said. Garner's campaign finance records, for instance, show less than $2,000 was contributed from out of state out of $157,507 raised. Lundstrum's records show all but $8,045 of her $114,263 in contributions came from within the state. The Secretary of State's website did not break down contributions by in-district and out-of-district.

"We did it but we had to work our tails off," Garner said about raising campaign funds in-district.

Democrats spent $464,270 in the region, plus whatever McFarland spent, to win two out of nine races. Being in the minority is expensive, Lundstrum said. The Republicans used to be in the minority and she was a campaign volunteer during those times, she said. There is no other way to build a party than to run serious campaigns, she said.

"You've got to go for it," Lundstrum said. "You have to take calculated risks."

NW News on 01/27/2019

Print Headline: NWA House races cost $1.1 million

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