Anchorage Assembly candidates' fundraising may be clue to front-runners

For a sign of how the Anchorage Assembly races are shaping up, look for clues in the reports of campaign cash. Elected officials and political strategists say fundraising is crucial for political newcomers, though much less so for incumbents.

The city election is April 4, less than three weeks away. Four Assembly seats — downtown, Chugiak-Eagle River, South Anchorage and Midtown — have no incumbent.

Two incumbents, Tim Steele and Pete Petersen, are running for re-election in two other districts. Steele represents West Anchorage and Petersen represents East Anchorage.  

The most recent campaign fundraising reports were due the first week of March. Assembly candidates have almost certainly raised more money in the weeks since — campaigns are ramping up and signs and social media ads are proliferating.

But the next summary reports aren't due until March 28, and the reports from earlier this month signal who may have an advantage in communicating their name and messages to voters.

The most money was being raised in the downtown Assembly race, which also attracted the largest pool of candidates — though two candidates were doing most of the fundraising. 

Candidate Christopher Constant had raised at least $89,000, more than twice as much as any other Assembly candidate in any of the six races. His donors included former Anchorage Mayor Mark Begich and former Alaska Gov. Tony Knowles, as well as several union and business political action committees and a range of smaller individual donations.

Constant filed his fundraising paperwork in October 2015. He began his campaign in earnest last summer. The reports show he's spent money on signs, strategic help and social media ads.

David Dunsmore, an aide to Petersen, first filed fundraising paperwork in January 2015 and raised at least $22,000. His donors included another Begich, current state Sen. Tom Begich. He also collected some union cash and donations from Petersen and Steele and former Assembly member Paul Honeman.

Three candidates — Warren West, Albert Swank Jr. and Mark Martinson — did not file reports.

A fourth candidate, Christopher Cox, had raised a few hundred dollars as of early March, according to the filings. Cox's donors included Randy Ruedrich, former chair of the Alaska Republican Party.

Lots of campaign cash doesn't guarantee a spot on the Assembly. But it sure helps, political strategists said.

Most Assembly candidates are not household names in politics, said Matt Larkin, a pollster and political consultant who owns the Anchorage firm Dittman Research and often works for conservative candidates. (Larkin has not yet formally worked with an Assembly candidate for the April election.)

In local races, "introducing" a newcomer to the public is key, Larkin said. That's usually through mail, radio and, more and more, social media.

"If you haven't raised any money, it's pretty difficult," Larkin said.

South Anchorage Assembly member Bill Evans, who was himself a political newcomer when he won a tight three-way race in 2013, said money doesn't matter as much if none of the candidates are fundraising.

"But for most Assembly races anyway, it's pretty important to raise enough money to get your name out there, via signs and mostly radio ads," said Evans, who decided not to seek a second term this election. Evans raised more than either of his opponents in his 2013 race.

Assembly districts cover a large area, more so than urban Legislature races. There are 16 Anchorage districts in the Alaska House of Representatives, but only six Assembly districts. That's why getting a candidate's name out is important, Evans said.

He also said the benchmark for a competitive Assembly race tends to be about $50,000.

That amount seemed about right to Ivan Moore, an Anchorage pollster and political strategist who tends to work with liberal or progressive candidates. Moore is also not formally working with Assembly candidates this election cycle. 

Moore said he sees the effectiveness of money in politics as a curve that levels out eventually.  

Less than $30,000 won't get you far, he said. But a $70,000 haul of campaign cash can make a big splash. The returns diminish after that, Moore suggested.

About $50,000 "is what you've got to raise to have some kind of shot at getting the word out," Moore said.

In the 2016 Assembly election, Eric Croft raised more than $108,000, topping all other municipal candidates that year. Two other candidates raised about $90,000, Forrest Dunbar and John Weddleton.

At least in 2016, the top fundraisers all scored victories — Croft, Dunbar, Weddleton and incumbents Dick Traini and Amy Demboski. That's been the case in the vast majority of Assembly races, Moore said.

Incumbency is also a huge advantage, Moore said.

"The whole point of money is, it's used to tell people who you are," Moore said.

Moore pointed to Don Smith, a candidate in Midtown. As of March 6, Smith had raised only about a quarter of the nearly $43,000 raised by opponent Felix Rivera.

But people know Smith, a former Assembly member, state legislator and Anchorage School Board member, Moore said.

"Does he necessarily need to get out there and raise a bunch of money to get his name ID up? It would certainly help," Moore said. But, he added: "He shouldn't be underestimated."

There's also Fred Dyson, a candidate in Chugiak-Eagle River. Dyson retired from the Legislature in 2014 after a career spanning nearly two decades. Before that, Dyson served on the Assembly.

Dyson filed his fundraising paperwork on Feb. 10, just before the deadline to register as a candidate.

But in fundraising, Dyson quickly jumped ahead of his three opponents — John Laurence Brassell, Gretchen Wehmhoff and Patrick Donnelly, none of whom have held political office. 

"There's a well-trod path between incumbents and people who will give them money," Moore said.

In other 2017 Assembly races, Albert Fogle had raised at least $18,000 in South Anchorage by early March, about twice as much as his opponent, Suzanne LaFrance.

Fogle's donors include well-known Anchorage conservatives like Ruedrich and former Mayor Tom Fink; LaFrance got donations from current Assembly members Weddleton and Dunbar, as well as a number of teachers.

Steele, the incumbent, was far ahead in fundraising for his race against opponent David Nees, with a large chunk of his roughly $12,000 in campaign money coming from unions. Nees had raised just under $2,000 as of early March.

Petersen had raised at least $30,000, from current and former elected officials, unions and a range of individuals, outpacing his opponent Don Jones, who came in just under $8,400 with donations from more conservative donors and groups like the Anchorage Republican Women's Club.

Devin Kelly

Devin Kelly was an ADN staff reporter.

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