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Why did the Robb-Kelly race cost so much?

Friday, November 7, 2008 | 6:32 p.m. CST; updated 9:23 p.m. CST, Saturday, November 8, 2008

COLUMBIA — While the nation witnessed Sen. Barack Obama break every state and national political fundraising record for his historic White House bid, Boone County voters might not have noticed the record-breaking amounts of money that poured into a race for the Missouri General Assembly.

Democrat challenger Chris Kelly won the Missouri 24th House District over Republican incumbent Rep. Ed Robb by 411 votes, or by one-half of 1 percent of the votes cast.

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Kelly's campaign raised nearly $220,000 over the course of the campaign, while Robb garnered $170,000 for his re-election bid, according to campaign finance reports filed Oct. 27.  

That's a combined total of nearly $400,000 for a margin of victory of 411 votes. It seems excessive, but sometimes that's how the game is played in high-stakes politics.

"I knew it'd be an expensive campaign," Kelly said. "But I had no idea it would get this big."

The race for the 24th District cost more than all the other competitive Boone County House races combined. Kelly raised $17.61 for each of the 12,491 votes he received while Robb raised $14.07 for each of the 12,080 votes he won.

Put another way, Kelly raised roughly $535 for each of the 411 votes that constituted the margin of victory.

Experts cite a combination of factors that created a perfect storm of campaign cash donations.

"This was one of the top-tier races in the state. This is where the resources went," said Ronny Richardson, executive director of the House Democratic Campaign Committee. "The high costs of that race were a function of having such dynamic candidates who were such dynamic fundraisers."

Most of Kelly's money came from small contributions from individuals, while Robb relied on larger gifts from political action committees. That helped create a Cold War of fundraising between the candidates.

"Both of those guys are hardworking guys who put their heart into it," Richardson said. "That's the very nature of it. ... They have to constantly up their game to keep up with the other's fundraising."

David Leuthold, an MU professor emeritus of political science, said  the record-breaking fundraising totals were a result of local circumstances.

"Your most competitive, your most expensive races depend in part on the role of the media," Leuthold said. "This particular media market is small enough that if you have an expensive House race, you can use television, you can use radio and other (avenues) to reach voters."

Kelly and Robb took advantage of a media market that Leuthold said is more cost effective for state House races than markets such as Kansas City and St. Louis.

Richardson agreed. "The Columbia market is small enough that you can still get some bang for your buck," he said.

Leuthold also said voters' wealth and political knowledge precipitates campaign contributions.

"When voters have more money to give, they will," Leuthold said. "If they are as interested (as voters in Columbia are), they will give more."

State Rep. Jeff Harris said the political climate had a huge impact on the costs of the campaign.

"It's a tight district," Harris said. "(The 24th) is not like other districts in Columbia. It has a variety of (political) leanings."

"The 24th is interesting when you compare it to other seats," Richardson said. "If you look at the vote tally of that district at every precinct, the margin is close to always 50-50. ... That means every vote and every little thing you do makes it that much more competitive."

The district, which includes southwestern Columbia and southern and western parts of Boone County, paints a fairly heterogeneous political picture. Robb had succeeded before with overwhelming turnout in the Columbia districts, as well as Ashland and Hartsburg.

Kelly was able to upset the two-term incumbent with a "southern strategy." He chipped away at Robb's margins in Columbia but made huge gains in places like Ashland.

"The people of southern Boone County lifted me on eagles' wings," Kelly said. "I owe this one to them."

Kelly said the expensive and heated campaign had a negative effect on voters. "The negative campaigning (in this race) is directly attributed to the money.

"If you take the money out of the race, you get a civil discussion on public policy," Kelly said. "Once you put in money, you bring in consultants, and analysts and they turn (the campaign) into two warring efforts to manipulate the voters instead of informing the voters."

Kelly said he discussed a fundraising/spending limit with Robb early in the campaign, hoping that would keep the race reasonable and civil. Robb denied that conversation occurred.

"It'd be better for society if we had a dialogue without all the money," Kelly said. "I'd rather lose that kind of race than win this kind of race."

Although Kelly said he supports reforms to prevent campaign spending sprees, Robb doubted it would have made a difference. He said  money didn't affect this campaign.

"We knew it'd be a difficult year (for Republicans)," Robb said. "We knew we had to compensate (for Obama). And when he came to town, it made it even worse for us."


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