COLUMBIA — A successful bid for public office has never been cheap, but it's clear from the final campaign finance reports filed by this year's candidates for Columbia City Council that local elections are becoming more expensive — particularly for those who win.
The reports, which were due no later than 30 days after the April election, show successful candidates spent thousands of dollars on signs and advertising.
Mayor Bob McDavid's campaign was by far the most expensive. He spent an unprecedented $61,361. About $22,000 of that went to advertising and $9,300 to mailings.
McDavid wasn't the only candidate of six for mayor who significantly upped the ante. Jerry Wade, the former Fourth Ward councilman who came in second, spent $31,284, roughly half McDavid's spending. Wade's treasurer, Mary Kaye Doyle, said they used nearly every penny they raised.
“I think there was 12 cents left,” Doyle said. Wade's finance report shows 8 cents left.
Gary Kespohl, who won the Third Ward seat, spent $22,500, more than twice as much as the incumbent, Karl Skala. Kespohl said he spent most of his money on radio ads.
“I think it helps get your message across better,” he said. “The more you advertise, the more people hear your message.”
Kee Groshong was McDavid’s campaign treasurer; he did the same job for former mayor Darwin Hindman.
“It seems every year campaigns are more expensive than the year before,” he said. “If I was in the media business, I’d be ecstatic. I don’t think that’s a good trend, but that’s the trend.”
Groshong said the fact that money has become central to local politics can knock out lesser-known candidates with smaller budgets.
"Candidates without name recognition have a hard time," Groshong said. "And without name recognition, it's hard to raise money."
Money buys advertising, but can it also buy an election? It's worth noting that the three successful candidates — McDavid, Kespohl and Fourth Ward Councilman Daryl Dudley — all received unprecedented endorsements from the Chamber of Commerce and a healthy infusion of money from chamber members.
In the Fourth Ward, three of the four candidates were close in the money contest. Dudley spent $10,246, Tracy Greever-Rice $6,598 and Sarah Read $4,248. Rick Buford spent $1,200. Read actually raised $8,039 but chose to sit on nearly half of it.
Although the top money raiser in every case won the election, money isn't everything, according to Groshong. “The ability to advertise certainly helps, but you still have to have a quality candidate," Groshong said. "So I don’t think you can buy an election.”
Skala, who was seeking a second term, said he thinks the disparity between his budget and Kespohl's was a factor in the outcome of the Third Ward race. Kespohl won the election by 54 votes out of 2,464 cast.
"I think money plays a big role in it," Skala said, "and the difficulty with having a limited budget is that when misinformation gets out, it's difficult to reach the voters who received that information."
Many of Kespohl's advertisements criticized Skala's council-related travel expenses.
Ed Robb, who is making a bid for Boone County presiding commissioner after serving two terms as 24th District state representative, said Columbia and Boone County differ in many areas when it comes to political strategy.
“It turns out Boone County is a very expensive place to run because of all the media outlets,” Robb said, explaining that radio ads have to be tailored to individual stations. An ad broadcast on the local country music station, for example, probably wouldn't work on a rock station or a National Public Radio affiliate.
Robb certainly is familiar with high-dollar campaigns. He and Chris Kelly, the Democrat who defeated Robb's bid for a third term, raised roughly a quarter-million dollars apiece in the 2008 election.
“We knew it was going to be a tough race,” Robb said.
Robb also noted the need for candidates to tap into social media.
“Now there’s Twitter, Facebook and websites. The more options you have to get your message out, the more it’s going to cost you,” he said. Social networking sites might be free, but candidates often pay someone to set them up and maintain them. Campaign websites can incur the same costs.
Although it appears the bills for local campaigns will continue to rise, few candidates kick off their bids with a firm idea of how much they'll need to raise and spend.
“You have expectations going in that you’ll be able to raise certain amounts and that the campaign will cost certain amounts,” Groshong said. “But you never know.”