Democrat Kamala Harris is developing a spending problem that has nagged front-runners before her.
Harris, the favorite to replace U.S. Sen. Barbara Boxer next year, is burning through campaign cash nearly as rapidly as she raises it. She is spending hundreds of thousands of dollars on mail fundraising appeals, a large campaign staff anchored in Los Angeles and prominent fundraisers scattered across the country.
Over the past three months, Harris took in $1.8 million. In that period, from July to September, the state attorney general spent about $1.4 million, and amassed another $400,000 in debts. Meanwhile, she is on her third finance director since launching her bid in January.
With that kind of burn rate, she could get herself into trouble.
Jim Jonas, a Denver-based political strategist
Spending at this rate, “she could get herself into trouble,” said Jim Jonas, a Denver-based political strategist who previously worked with Republicans but now consults exclusively with independent candidates.
Critical examinations into the spending of leading candidates occur each election cycle, and this year is no different. Over the past three months, Democratic presidential hopeful Hillary Clinton spent nearly 90 percent of the $28.7 million she raised for the primary election, according to the Federal Election Commission. Payroll costs, at $5.5 million, plus another $3 million in payroll taxes, accounted for the largest total expense.
On the Republican side, Jeb Bush’s campaign last week laid out plans to curtail staff salaries and focus his resources on early-voting states. No longer the front-runner, Bush took in $13.4 million and spent $11.5 million, or 86 percent, during the third quarter. Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, once a darling of GOP presidential primary voters and an early leader in Iowa, spent a reported $90,000 a day on the campaign before unceremoniously dropping out.
“You just can’t get into these races expecting to have a burn rate like that when a large part of your voter-contact dollars have to be spent at the end,” said Tim Clark, a Republican political consultant.
He suggested Harris’ effort has “all the hallmarks of a top-heavy campaign right now.”
“Kamala Harris is going to learn, maybe the hard way, that she can’t spend enough in 2015 to win the race but she can spend enough in 2015 to lose the race.”
Harris’ campaign contends the early investments, including in her fundraising apparatus, are already paying dividends. Spokesman Nathan Click noted she has received 35,000 donations, most of which are under $100. He also pointed out that Harris has raised $6 million – far more than all the other challengers combined.
“Every indicator shows we are in a position of strength in this race,” Click said.
Kamala Harris has a well-stocked Rolodex of prominent fundraisers, including Beth Foster Consultants of Minneapolis, Colleen Coffey of Boston, Lindsay Rachelefsky of Los Angeles, Amy Thornton of San Francisco, and Shari Yost Gold as well as Julianna Smoot and Paul Tewes and LED Strategy Group, all of Washington, D.C.
Harris’ standing as the prohibitive favorite has not diminished, though that’s mostly been due to her opponents’ inability to find their own financial footing.
Her three main Republican rivals, deeply disadvantaged by the state’s Democratic tilt, have taken in a combined $480,000 and risk being shut out of the runoff altogether if one fails to pull into the top-two come next June.
Rep. Loretta Sanchez, D-Orange, has collected about $1 million since she entered the race in May. Sanchez also loaned herself $300,000 and transferred another $516,000 from her House account.
But on the other side of the ledger, Sanchez lists just $279,000 in total spending and remains within striking distance of Harris financially for the primary. California campaigns typically endeavor to build up their cash reserves to spend on television ads closer to Election Day.
For every $1 she’s raised, Harris spent 44 cents.
In the third quarter, the Harris campaign dropped about $258,000 on direct mail services, primarily fundraising appeals. It spent $223,000 on staff salaries, led by campaign manager Rory Steele, $148,000 for consulting, $143,000 for fundraising consulting, $137,000 for payroll taxes and about $90,000 for printing. Click declined to discuss specifics about the campaign staff, which largely works out of rented offices in Los Angeles.
At $2.67 million, Harris’ total spending puts her ahead of most, if not all, of the nationwide front-runners campaigning for a seat in the U.S. Senate next year. Her ratio of dollars taken in compared with dollars spent similarly places her on the list of top spenders.
For every $1 she’s raised, Harris has doled out 44 cents, not counting the $400,000 she owed as of Sept. 30.
Harris’ general consulting efforts are aided by SCN Strategies’ Ace Smith, as well as by her longtime political adviser Brian Brokaw of Sacramento.
In other safe Democratic seats, Sen. Ron Wyden of Oregon spent 23 cents for every $1 raised. Sen. Patty Murray of Washington stands at 28 cents; Charles Schumer of New York at 12 cents; Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut at 24 cents and Brian Schatz of Hawaii at 30 cents. Leading candidates for open Senate seats in Nevada, Florida and Indiana had better spending ratios than Harris.
In Maryland, where Democrats are campaigning to retain the seat of retiring Sen. Barbara Mikulski, the front-runner, Rep. Chris Van Hollen, has raised about $5.2 million and spent some $1.04 million, giving him a ratio of 20 cents disbursed for every $1 coming into his coffers. His cash on hand is $4.1 million.
Roy Behr, a Democratic consultant who worked for Boxer, said Van Hollen is perhaps the most appropriate comparison to Harris, given his status as the favorite, which comes with the challenge of having to raise money even when the race is not perceived to be particularly competitive. Yet Behr noted that unlike Harris, Van Hollen’s years in Congress put him in a better position to raise money under more restrictive federal rules.
“Harris is still going through that transition of someone who has raised money for a state race to someone who needs to raise money for a federal race,” he said.
The distinction is significant. Under federal law, Senate candidates can raise a maximum $2,700 per election from individual donors. More than $1.3 million Harris raised cannot be spent until she reaches the general election. That leaves her with about $1.6 million to spend for the primary election.
Sanchez, whose campaign declined to comment for this story, has roughly $1.2 million in eligible primary money.
Harris’ flow of disbursements is sapping money that could be socked away for later. Jonas, having recently served as the chief strategist for Greg Orman’s unsuccessful independent bid for the U.S. Senate in Kansas, suggested Harris is going to need a lot more cash on hand heading into next year.
“I would be concerned that (fundraising) lists (and) consultants are chewing up that kind of dough this early,” Jonas said of her third-quarter report, noting the lack of money that went into voter contact. “They (consultants and Harris) had better hope the generous sowing of fundraising fields this quarter reaps rewards next spring and summer.”
Jim Miller of The Bee Capitol Bureau contributed to this report.
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Kamala Harris’ money by the quarter
Cash on hand