The New Hampshire gubernatorial candidates released their first post-primary campaign finance reports on Wednesday, and going into the general election, they don’t have a lot of money to play with.
For Republican Chris Sununu and Democrat Colin Van Ostern, they will need to fundraise a lot very quickly, or simply rely on outside groups for help.
Sununu reports having raised $746,196 during the primary, which includes a transfer of $57,348 from his previous executive council run. He spent $689,104, leaving him with about $57,092 on hand for the general.
Van Ostern fared better in his report, having raised $1,156,191, while spending $1,054,572, resulting in cash on hand of about $101,589.
That’s not a lot of money for ads or air time. But Sununu and Van Ostern are actually doing better than some previous gubernatorial candidates. NH Journal analyzed the cash on hand amounts of the candidates coming out of their primaries since 2002 as reported by the New Hampshire Secretary of State’s office.
When looking at elections between two new candidates in both parties that aren’t incumbents, those candidates tend to have low cash on hand going into the general election.
Democratic Gov. Maggie Hassan had a very low cash on hand amount. In 2012 when she was running for her first term as governor, she only had just over $16,000. She faced a tough primary against former state Sen. Jackie Cilley and had to use more resources in order to get the nomination.
Hassan is not seeking reelection this year and is instead campaigning for Kelly Ayotte’s U.S. Senate seat.
In 2002, when former Republican Gov. Craig Benson ran against former Democratic state Sen. Mark Fernald, they both had relatively low amounts going into the general election. About $48,000 and $31,000, respectively.
The exception to new candidates having low cash on hand was in 2004, when Benson was seeking reelection and had just over $14,000 on hand against former Democratic Gov. John Lynch, who had almost $85,000.
In all the other election cycles, when an incumbent was seeking reelection, the incumbent had significantly more money going into the general election than when they ran for their first term.
So what are the candidates supposed to do if they don’t have a lot of money saved for the general election?
Well, since the 2010 Citizens United case, its become easier for the candidates to not solely focus on fundraising and to rely on outside groups and their political parties to pay for ads.
NH's outdated campaign finance laws mean Sununu & CVO enter election near-broke with no means to raise, dependent on RGA/DGA #nhpolitics
— Fergus Cullen (@FergusCullen) September 21, 2016
Fergus Cullen, the former chair of the New Hampshire Republican Party, tweeted that on Thursday. And he’s right.
New Hampshire has one of the least strict campaign finances laws in the country. But it also has one of the last state primaries in the country, leaving candidates only 50-or-so days until the general election. That’s not a lot of time to load up their pockets with contributions. So instead they have to rely on outside groups.
Since the 2010 Supreme Court case, the door opened for political groups acting independently of candidates to spend unlimited funds on an election. While this mostly applies for federal elections, the case opened the floodgates for political action committees and nonprofit groups to spend a lot of money on federal and state races where they see victory.
We’re seeing that right now with the U.S. Senate race between Hassan and Ayotte, where outside spending is expected to top $100 million.
The governor’s race probably won’t get that high, but groups like the Republican Governors Association and the Democratic Governors Association (the groups mentioned in Cullen’s tweet), and the NH GOP and NH Dems are ready to put in as much as necessary to take the corner office.
Take the 2012 election as an example. Despite Hassan having a lower cash on hand than her challenger, Republican candidate Ovide Lamontagne (who had about $258,000 in the bank), she ended up winning the election.
Why? A huge part was probably the roughly $9 million spent by unions and the DGA to elect her. On the other hand, the RGA spent nearly $8 million to elect Lamontagne.
Those amounts are exponentially higher than what the candidates and their committees were able to do — they didn’t even crack $1 million. At the end of the 2012 general election, Hassan raised about $844,000 and spent $809,000. Lamontagne raised $860,000 and spent $837,000.
It’s almost as if the candidate committees have become irrelevant. But it wasn’t always like this. In previous New Hampshire elections, gubernatorial candidates usually relied on direct contributions or they tapped into their personal wealth to fund their campaigns.
Take the 2002 election, for example. Benson spent $10 million of his money on his path to become governor, most of it during the primary. When Lynch beat Benson in 2004, $2.1 million came from his own pocket.
The problem now with outside groups spending money on the gubernatorial campaigns is that the candidates no longer control the message.
“One of the arguments for why the Citizens United decision was regrettable is that it really puts a lot of control in outside spenders than in their own hands, and the candidate can lose control of the narrative they want to put out,” said Ciara Torres-Spelliscy, professor of law at Stetson University and campaign finance expert.
Also research shows that a lot of the independent spending from outside groups tends to be on negative ads, or attacks on the challenger. When candidates put out ads, they are more positive and highlight the candidate’s track record or best qualities.
“Most candidates don’t want to look like a boogey man and steer away from negative ads,” Torres-Spelliscy said.
So will outside groups again dominate this year’s gubernatorial race between Sununu and Van Ostern? It’s looking that way.
The primary was only last week and the RGA has said it intends to pour $3 million in advertising into the race, while the DGA has said it will spend $2.1 million, and NH Dems intend to spend an additional $2 million.
And the NH Dems already put out their first television ad about Van Ostern and the importance of a college education.
It’s now a race to the finish to see who can build up their war chests more.