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story.lead_photo.caption In this file photo stickers for early voters sit in a container Friday during early voting in the primary election at the Benton County clerk's office in Bentonville. (NWA Democrat-Gazette/Ben Goff)

Northwest Arkansas candidates are on track to set another record in spending on legislative races, campaign finance records show.

The 26 candidates in the region's 13 contested state lawmaker races spent $1.08 million by Oct. 24, according to the reports filed with the Secretary of State. Candidates had $613,191 left in their campaign accounts, records show.

Campaign contribution and expenditure reports were due Oct. 27 for spending through Oct. 24 for the general election.

The 2018 overall regional spending record of $1.1 million is poised to fall.

"It's a campaign sin to end with any kind of a surplus," said Michael Cook, a campaign consultant in Little Rock and former executive director of the state's Democratic Party. So, the remaining money is getting spent, he said.

Campaign spending of $1.5 million would be almost 50% more than the 2018 election. The 2018 total more than doubled 2016's figure of $492,862.

Much of the increase comes from a growing number of contested races in the traditional Republican stronghold of Northwest Arkansas, campaign figures show.

There were five contested races in 2016, nine in 2018 and 13 this year in Benton and Washington counties, counting races in which at least one of the candidates lives in one of those two counties.

The average contribution amount for the 22 regional candidates for the Arkansas House is $54,500.

"That's really just a good, healthy amount you need for a House race, not a huge amount," Cook said.

If Northwest Arkansas House and Senate candidates spend all the money they've collected by Oct. 24, average campaign spending would be $61,545 per candidate, figures show. This would be slightly less than the region's average of $62,507 after the 2018 campaign was over.

Senate districts are about three times as large as House districts. The average for the region's four candidates in the two races for state Senate is heavily skewed by Democratic candidate Ryan Craig. He is on the ballot against incumbent Sen. Jim Hendren, R-Sulphur Springs, but raised only $2,275 in his latest finance report. Every other Senate candidate in the region has raised more than $100,000.

Sen. Bart Hester, R-Cave Springs, and Democratic challenger Ronetta Francis of Bentonville raised $277,167 between them. Yet, both said they canceled fundraisers once the covid-19 pandemic hit.

"There were a few days where I made some calls and sent texts, but it just keeps coming," Hester said of donations. His campaign raised $162,419, more than any other legislative candidate in the region.

Meanwhile, incumbent Rep. Megan Godfrey, D-Springdale, raised the most of any state House candidate in the region. Her $136,275 is more than any other Senate candidate besides Hester. Her Republican opponent is Jed Duggar.

Hester said people are really engaged with national politics getting a lot of attention. "I think it's probably unique to this election cycle," Hester said.

Small donations are responsible for most of the increase rather than larger political groups, the two candidates' campaign finance records show.

"She's a quality candidate," Hester said of Francis, which also helps explain the high dollar numbers in their race. "She's professional, educated, successful and appeals to different groups." The appeal of the two candidates in their race is quite broad, each in their own direction, he said.

Francis said she wasn't surprised at the $114,748 her campaign has raised, but is excited about it.

"I was told before getting into the race that I'd have to raise between $100,000 and $120,000. Then covid hit," she said, leading to a cancellation of fundraisers.

"We decided that whatever happened financially, we were not going to be risking anyone," Francis said of the decision to cancel fundraising events. "I am truly, truly appreciative of every single person who has contributed."

Shifting donor patterns

Individual donors from across the state and from out of state are sending money, campaign records show. The shifting landscape of Arkansas and national politics is part of the reason, said Richard Bearden of Little Rock. Bearden is a founding partner of the Impact Management Group consulting firm and a former executive director of the state's Republican Party.

Northwest Arkansas used to be the only Republican stronghold in a largely Democratic state.

"Now, if you're a Democrat in south or east Arkansas, you might not have a local Democratic legislative candidate to contribute to," Bearden said.

"So, instead of paying $25 to go to a local candidate's fish fry, people are sending $5 to a candidate somewhere else," he said. "And that's another thing. You don't even have to write a check, put it in an envelope, address it, stamp it and put it in the mail. Now all you have to do is make a few clicks on your computer.

"I don't think it's going to go away after this year," he said. "People used to shrug their shoulders about politics. Now they know politics matter."

Cook agreed the ease of donating for individuals has led to an infusion of cash in local races, but added other factors are at work in Northwest Arkansas candidates' general fundraising success.

"We have no governor's race, no Senate race to speak of and the presidential race is just not competitive here," Cook said. "So local races are getting a lot of attention."

Spending shifts

Hester and Francis have raised more money, but no one in a Northwest Arkansas legislative race has spent more than Godfrey, records show.

Godfrey's upset win in 2018 over Rep. Jeff Williams, R-Springdale, was driven by an intensive door-to-door campaign, which is not an option during a covid pandemic, she said. Her campaign spent $124,385 of the $136,275 raised, figures show.

"We've spent a lot less on pizza and donuts for volunteers" in a door-knocking campaign, Godfrey said. "We've spent a lot on direct mail," she said, along with digital advertising and social media. "But we decided there would be no knocking on doors. Springdale's number of covid cases is significant and we respect others' safety."

Godfrey's latest campaign finance report shows $32,395 in spending from Oct. 1 to Oct. 24. Of that, $11,523 went to direct mail. Another $5,000 went to video, so those two categories accounted for half her spending during that time. Volunteer meals, meanwhile, cost less than $12. Newspaper and radio advertising combined was $1,960.

Sen. Jim Hendren, R-Sulphur Springs, was House minority leader when he left that chamber in 1999. He returned to state politics in 2012, when he successfully ran for the state Senate seat he now holds.

There is no question, he said, that fundraising is relatively easier now -- and that has its pitfalls. More money could mean more chances for negative campaigning and attack ads, he said.

State representatives and senators should also be responsive to their constituents, he said. Being able to fund a campaign from elsewhere affects that.

On the other hand, "I hate asking somebody for a check," he said. A candidate who is sufficiently funded can be more responsive to voters and less beholden to donors, he said.

Doug Thompson can be reached by email at [email protected] or on Twitter @NWADoug

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