Baton Rouge lawyer Cassie Felder says she never asked anyone for a nickel before and admits that her initial efforts at campaign fundraising were kind of clumsy.
Her lack of prowess prompted her consultants to quit, according to their termination letter. They later joined an opponent in the race to replace U.S. Rep. Bill Cassidy. But money to campaign for Congress, or rather the lack of it, underlies a breach of contract lawsuit that a state district court in Baton Rouge will hear Wednesday.
Felder is one of 10 candidates in the congressional race, most of whom are rookies making their first stab at elective office.
The slow pace of campaign fundraising could reflect the learning curve of new candidates or perhaps a lack of name recognition. Political professionals also point to a competitive U.S. Senate race sucking up available dollars as a reason why 6th District candidates are collecting fewer dollars than during the last competitive race in 2008.
Though not completely analogous — in 2008 there was a special election, then another ballot for the full-term — the 10 most active candidates in the 2014 race have raised $1.8 million from individual contributions, according to disclosures with the Federal Elections Commission. Most of the candidates have been raising money for about six months, though a few started in fall 2013.
During the four-month campaign for the 2008 special election, nine candidates raised $2.1 million. Candidates raised $4.2 million for the entire election.
U.S. Sen. Mary Landrieu is among the handful of Democrats in conservative-leaning states who have been targeted by national Republicans in their bid to win control of the U.S. Senate. Consequently, the race pits the 18-year incumbent against two Republicans: Cassidy, who is considered her leading opponent, and Rob Maness, a tea party favorite.
Landrieu has raised $9.6 million as of June 30, while Cassidy picked up $8 million and Maness has total receipts of $1.3 million. While national interest groups, political action committees and parties have contributed much of the money, all three candidates also are relying on Louisiana donors.
The election for both the 6th Congressional District and the U.S. Senate is Nov. 4.
In such a scenario, congressional campaigns are getting short shrift, said Joshua Stockley, a political science professor at the University of Louisiana at Monroe.
“This is the other ticket, the secondary show. The big show is Mary Landrieu and Bill Cassidy, for Republicans and Democrats who are significant contributors, and they’ll be getting the first cut of the money,” Stockley said.
It’s not totally the Senate race, says Timmy Teepell, the governor’s chief political strategist. In many cases the donors are friends with more than one candidate. Often in these cases, donors will hold back, hoping one will emerge as a leader.
Pollster Bernie Pinsonat said part of the issue is that the redrawn 6th District has little cohesiveness. Louisiana legislators changed the district lines in 2011, removing many of the minority neighborhoods around Baton Rouge. It now stretches down to pick up some of the New Orleans suburbs, along with parts of Thibodeaux and Houma. The communities have different needs and feel isolated from the rest of the district.
“What they did to the 6th District is almost criminal,” Pinsonat said. “A lot of people feel disconnected and they no longer care as much. … I’m sure it affects fundraising.”
Felder says she dropped into this political world without much guidance, other than orders to draw up a list of friends, acquaintances and family then start dialing. “She needs somebody to shepherd her into that,” said Felder’s husband. What’s the most effective pitch? When is the best time to call? What are the mechanics of soliciting money?
Felder said she attended a seminar in Washington, D.C., and with the tips she learned there, the campaign’s fundraising got back on track in late May. She reported raising $82,680 from individual contributors during about six months ending June 30.
Another first-time candidate, Craig McCulloch, a Republican from Ethel, raised $55,176 in contributions from individuals. And he personally loaned his campaign $201,000 to keep pace with his opponents.
“It’s primarily a function of working the phone and sitting down with groups of like-thinking people,” candidate Dan Claitor said about fundraising. A Republican state senator from Baton Rouge, he has raised money for earlier campaigns.
“I’d have a hard time coming up with the name of a contributor that I didn’t know personally in some way,” he said.
Claitor’s 16th State Senate district in southeast Baton Rouge accounted for 62 percent of his individual contributions, $121,902 of $195,458.
Similarly, Republican state Rep. Lenar Whitney reported that 60 percent of the individual contributions she collected — $73,450 of $121,673 — came from Houma, her hometown.
Former Gov. Edwin W. Edwards, the only Democratic candidate raising enough money to report, also relied on a little help from his friends for much of the $201,776 he gathered from individuals. Former U.S. Sen. John Breaux, William Broadhurst, J.E. Jumonville Jr., Joseph Canizaro and Buddy Leach all contributed.
Rookie candidate Charles “Trey” Thomas, a Republican educator from Baton Rouge, said he’s getting donations from coast to coast. But 75 percent of the money he has raised during the first six months of the campaign — $98,812 of $131,537 — were in amounts too small to require itemized reporting.
Paul Dietzel II, a Republican businessman and another first-time candidate, also is relying on small contributions. Much of the money came through about 120,000 contacts on social media, his campaign manager J Hudson said. He has raised $411,971 in individual donations.
“We’re focusing on small-dollar donations,” Hudson said. “We want to drive more young people to voting and when they do, they’ll vote conservative.”
Baton Rouge Republican Garret Graves, a former aide to Gov. Bobby Jindal, has professional political fundraisers working with him, along with supporters and activists from Jindal’s past campaign crews.
Baton Rouge lobbyist Randy Hayden says the Graves campaign has a different feel than the others. He recalled having a short conversation in Graves’ office interrupted several times with questions about money. “It was ‘Where do we send it?’ Then someone else, ‘Can we send this way?’ Then someone else calling to ask how much to send,” Hayden said.
Graves has receipts of $814,932 – almost as much as the next three candidates combined.
“We’re doing a combination of things,” Graves said.
He makes direct calls, like all candidates. But his campaign also is holding a number of fundraisers hosted by heavy hitters including the Koch Brothers, various parish presidents, and even Mary Matalin, the former aide to President George H.W. Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney.
“The race kind of just started gelling and there hasn’t been much activity,” pollster Pinsonet said. “Last time you had two established, ‘chosen ones,’ if you will, and it was a competitive race that either party could have won. This time the fundraising has been slow. It’s hard to say if it’ll stay that way.”