Political Notebook

Money, elected office help candidates in open seats

Last month, Fresno County Supervisor Debbie Poochigian said she wouldn’t seek re-election to her District 5 seat this year. Her announcement came less than five months before the June primary election.

Given that short time, no one was better prepared to step into the race than Nathan Magsig.

He is a sitting Clovis councilman and current mayor. More importantly, he had $130,000 sitting in his Clovis campaign account that he immediately transferred to a newly opened supervisor account.

Even though Poochigian’s seat has no incumbent because of her retirement, those advantages have made Magsig the out-of-the-gate front-runner.

It’s a similar situation in the Fresno mayor’s race, where Councilman Lee Brand and Fresno County Supervisor Henry R. Perea already hold elected offices that cover parts of the city, and have sizable campaign funds at their disposal. Fellow candidate H. Spees, a pastor and community leader, does not enjoy the same advantages.

“One of the significant predictors of who wins races is prior political experience, prior elected office,” Fresno State political science professor Jeff Cummins said. “Those always come up as one of the important factors, especially in an open race.”

And money helps, too.

“It’s all about name recognition,” Cummins said. “The money helps get that name recognition out there.”

Spees’ challenge in mayor’s race

The challenge is especially tough for Spees, because Fresno limits when candidates can raise money. That window opened last week. When it did, Brand already had $243,000 in his Fresno mayoral account – $100,000 from a loan and $143,000 moved from his District 6 City Council account. Perea had access to around $87,000 from his supervisor account.

Spees has loaned his campaign $11,500 and contributed another $10,000 of his own money, but even before the end of last year, he already had spent $7,460.

On top of that, Fresno has campaign contribution limits that are aligned with the state – $4,200 per election for individuals.

Fresno political consultant Tim Orman, who is overseeing the Brand and Magsig campaigns, said the advantages are obvious if one campaign is starting from scratch and another is starting with more than $200,000. With a Fresno city fundraising window of little more than 3½ months ahead of the primary election, the edge is even more pronounced.

“I think it’s an important advantage candidates have,” Orman said. “When they do a good job, people support them – and they’re able to use that support to start their future campaigns with money in the bank.”

A decade ago, Spees also had a higher profile in Fresno, but in recent years his job has taken him across not only the nation, but the world – and away from Fresno. So while Brand and Perea have been in elected office and getting regular media exposure – in Brand’s case for the past seven-plus years, and for Perea, well over a decade – Spees has largely been out of Fresno’s political scene.

Elected-office advantage

In Fresno County, the challenge is a little different because there is no campaign contribution limit, but Magsig still is the only candidate seeking to replace Poochigian who currently holds elected office. His District 5 challengers are businessman Alex Ott and rancher and business owner Allen O. Clyde.

Early on, Magsig has the money advantage, and also an edge because Poochigian made her announcement in January instead of mid- or late 2015. That limits the time for candidates to get their campaigns up and running, seek endorsements and raise money.

Magsig built his campaign war chest slowly. At the end of 2008, he had around $2,000 in his account. Year by year, the amount increased, reaching close to $50,000 by the end of 2011 and nearly $75,000 by December 2012. In 2013, nobody stepped up to run for the Clovis council, so Magsig didn’t have to spend a dime on his re-election. At the end of 2014, he had $118,640 in his account, and almost $140,000 by the end of last year.

But since there are no contribution limits in the supervisor’s race, Ott and Clyde could quickly close the gap. And given the need to quickly increase their name recognition, raising a lot of money quickly is vital to the success of their respective campaigns.

In a race like this, it’s mainly going to be campaign literature that lands in voter mailboxes. There will also be a lot of precinct walking, so having the money to pay organizers helps, Cummins said. Magsig also is helped by the fact he already has run for – and lost – the seat.

The asterisk

But that 2008 loss to Poochigian also can prove a cautionary tale about how money and name recognition can go for naught against the right candidate.

Ahead of the 2008 election, Poochigian announced she would challenge then-Supervisor Bob Waterston. At the time, she held no public office, but her husband – now 5th District Court of Appeal Justice Chuck Poochigian – is well known and served in both the state Assembly and Senate. Debbie Poochigian was known in her own right as a Republican Party activist.

Without benefit of a single fundraiser or the perks of incumbency, Poochigian raised close to $170,000 – and that was by the summer of 2007, a full 10 months before the primary.

Ahead of that 2008 election, Magsig followed the same strategy he is using this year, nearly emptying his Clovis council account. Then, he moved $200,000 to a newly opened supervisor account.

Waterston eventually backed out of the race, and Poochigian beat Magsig by 10 percentage points in June 2008.