The impossible task of political fundraising in the time of COVID-19

There will always be conflicting viewpoints and realities in politics.

Voters support term limits. It’s a rare issue that crosses political boundaries. Everyone wants to see incumbents “thrown out of office”, yet the vast majority are re-elected. Congress has an approval rating somewhere between 10-20%, yet 90% of them will be re-elected in any given election cycle.

How do you square those perceptions and realities?

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Fundraising is another conflict. Voters don’t like candidates to amass large amounts of cash. They don’t want someone to “buy an election”. Yet in races nationally, statewide, and in municipalities, the candidate who raises the most money wins over 80% of the time. That figure is skewed a bit by factors such as ideologies in a specific region, grassroots candidates who raise no money and lose by 50-plus percent, or incumbents with an inevitability factor that dramatically out raises their opponents (see the above paragraph). At a bare minimum, however, every candidate needs to raise enough money to allow their message to be heard. Those that don’t will not create a platform large enough to resonate.

It’s perhaps the most difficult part of running for office – asking people for money, and being in the midst of a pandemic only enhances that challenge.

There are 22 candidates in Alachua County running for 11 offices. Mainstreet Daily News contacted all of them to find out how they were coping with the challenge of fundraising during a pandemic. 

In the election for Alachua County Sheriff, four-term incumbent Sadie Darnell and Rep. Clovis Watson, a four-term member of the state legislature, are essentially tied in fundraising, but hold a huge lead over the other two candidates – Steven A. Gordon and John L. Long. 

Darnell raised $23,095, and had her best fundraising month in March, with a haul of $7,790. Watson raised $37,494, but only $2 in the past two months, according to his February and March reports. 

Steven Gordon

In contrast, Gordon has raised only $2,783.95, and Long has yet to raise any money. Gordon believes that voters obviously have bigger concerns than donating to candidates. He thinks Florida Governor Ron DeSantis should intervene to even the playing field.

“They’re afraid of donating money right now because of their fears of how long this is going to go on, and if they’ll continue working during this nightmare, which I honestly can’t blame them,” he said. “There is just too much unknown. I have been asking people to write, call and email the Governor and ask him to sign an Executive Order waiving the signatures and the filing fees for all candidates in Florida. This will give everyone the opportunity to be on the ballot and for the citizens to vote for the candidate of their choice.”

The election for Alachua County Property Appraiser is perhaps the most hotly contested election if fundraising is the measuring stick. Two candidates – Matthew Geiger and Susan McQuillan – were fortunate enough to have the vast majority of their fundraising come in as they began their campaigns. Geiger, who has raised $61,040, received almost half ($30,000) in June of 2019 – his first month reporting. McQuillan, who has raised $45,725, received $40,000 in October – her first month reporting. That puts them well ahead of the four-person field, but is not thwarting the efforts of Wendy Sapp – who has raised $23,223. Sapp, in contrast, has not raised more than $6,500 in any given month. 

Wendy Sapp

She too finds it hard to ask residents for campaign donations during COVID-19.

“For me fundraising along with face-to-face contact came to an abrupt end when the pandemic hit. I personally have a hard time asking people for money during a global pandemic. Some families are just struggling to find a way to pay bills and provide necessities. How do you ask for money from people, who have lost their job, or do not know when they might have a steady income? It is tough.”

She also raises the issue of a qualifying fee. 

 “Some of the candidates will now have to come up with the qualifying fee, because they could not complete the petition process in time. For instance, I was on schedule to have all of my petitions in time to qualify. If I do not get them all in electronically by May 10th, I will be paying $8,400 to qualify, money that could have been used for campaign advertising.”

Sapp points out that it’s not just politicians who will feel this pinch.

 “Other businesses will feel the impact of this as well. We will not be buying as many signs or advertising. We will not be attending any festivals and renting booths, we will not be buying tickets to banquets or brunches. Our inability to campaign the “normal” way, is not only hurting us, it is hurting our non-profit clubs and organizations, and many small businesses in Alachua County.” 

 Kelly Suggs is the fourth candidate in the race, but has only raised $3,062, $500 of it in March.
Mary Alford is the incumbent County Commissioner of District 1 running unopposed for her seat. Alford has raised $16,386.85 for her re-election campaign. She is not only dealing with the pandemic for herself and the county, but is also caring for a terminally ill family member. Despite the stress, Alford  has a unique approach to fundraising during a pandemic.

Mary Alford

“I’m taking a care of my brother who is at home with me, but under hospice care for advanced metastatic cancer,” she said. “So my fundraising has been a bit different. I’ve been making masks and offering them to those that need them and if compensation is offered, as it usually is, I ask for donations to my campaign. This allows me to stay close and available to my brother, perform a needed service to the community, and raise money for my campaign.  So far I’ve produced over 200 reusable washable masks with a pocket for an additional filter.” 

Editor’s Note

In this weekly series entitled “Pandemic Politics”, Mainstreet Daily News will follow and report on the 22 candidates running for office in Alachua County. This is the second installment.

To read part one “Alachua County candidates shift campaign strategies due to COVID-19”go here.

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