So you want to run for office? Politics has a cost
The costs of seeking elective office -- from courthouse to statehouse and beyond -- are skyrocketing. Experts and some candidates say it's killing the appetite to serve. It's also taking its toll on ordinary Virginians suspicious of why candidates solicit ridiculous sums of money for a government job that pays a fraction of what was spent to win it.
As of Labor Day, Virginia's major-party gubernatorial candidates had raised a combined $33.4 million -- three-fifths by Democrat Terry McAuliffe alone. That's not counting about $8 million in TV ads aired by groups apart from the campaigns, according to the nonprofit Virginia Public Access Project, an independent tracker of money in Virginia politics.
Virginia's governor makes $175,000 a year.
A year ago, total spending in Virginia's U.S. Senate race between Republican George Allen and Democrat Tim Kaine topped $80 million, obliterating all records for a statewide race in Virginia. Some $53 million of that came from outside, independent groups, many of which do not have to disclose their wealthy donors. It was the largest amount for any 2012 Senate contest.
A U.S. senator's base salary is $174,000 a year.
"Like I say, it sounds sort of like spending a bank president's salary to get a job at McDonald's. It doesn't make any sense," said Russ Slate, a 53-year-old career Navy veteran who retired to Ashland to manage a toy train and hobby shop.
The political big leagues have always required deep pockets to play. Running for governor or the U.S. Senate requires television time, large campaign staffs to coordinate in far-flung regions, planes to zip candidates about.
Mark Rozell, acting dean of the George Mason University School of Public Policy, said the price of politics shot up sharply early last decade, partly as a consequence of changes in federal campaign finance law. "It just got completely out of control," he said.
"It used to be that we spent more to advertise potato chips than candidates for public office, but it's not that way anymore," Rozell said.
Virginia's most pricey election remains the 2005 election in which Republican Jerry W. Kilgore, Democrat Tim Kaine and independent H. Russell Potts together spent $46.5 million, or a little more than $23 for each of the nearly 2 million ballots cast. Four years later, hamstrung by a deep recession, Republican Bob McDonnell and Democrat R. Creigh Deeds mustered only about $41 million, a meager $19.64 per vote.
With 37 days left until the Nov. 5 election, it's not beyond reason that this year's fundraising could rival those.
It's had a trickle-down effect on lesser races and even county or municipal elections.
An analysis for this column by VPAP founder and executive director David Poole reveals that the average cost of a contested Virginia state Senate campaign in 2011 was $759,502. The average for a contested House of Delegates race was $289,091. A delegate's annual compensation is $17,640 a year plus per diem. State senators earn $18,000 a year plus per diem.
In Goochland County, Republican Rudy Butler spent only about $1,500 to win the first of five four-year terms he served on the Goochland County Board of Supervisors. By 2011, he spent $11,275 and lost by just six votes out of 1,678 cast to independent challenger Bob Minnick, who spent $14,100. Combined, their spending averaged about $15 per vote.
"Some people encourage me to run again, but I ain't running anymore," Butler said. "I think it's just going to be even more expensive next time if they find somebody to run for that seat."
In an adjacent Richmond suburb, Angela Kelly-Wiecek raised and spent $26,500 to win her first term on the Hanover County Board of supervisors two years ago, defeating an independent who raised $14,002. That's equal to $13.16 per vote for that seat.
For Kelly-Wiecek, a Republican activist and volunteer in Hanover politics for a dozen years, the money isn't the tough part.
``I think the greater barrier is the true nature of politics in that you've got to have that thick skin,'' she said. ``It's not so much the money. It's the idea of having to think about campaigning and not wanting to get into or opening your family to the rigors of a campaign.''
Stories of a wealthy corporate chief executive providing Gov. Bob McDonnell and his family $145,000 worth of gifts and loans -- most not publicly disclosed -- have only hardened public skepticism, said Mary Washington University political scientist Steven Farnsworth.
``The political environment right now is absolutely corrosive. Even before we start talking about the governor's scandal, the escalating cost of running for public office creates a bigger and bigger gap between the people who are elected and the people whose votes are supposed to be determinative,'' Farnsworth said.
Slate says the last elected official he trusted was Robb, who was also Virginia's governor.
"Is there any I trust now?" he asked himself. "Maybe."
Asked who, he furrowed his brow in silent thought. Then he shrugged and shook his head.
"Sorry" he answered.
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