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What can donor data tell us about Olympia’s races?


This year’s Olympia city council races present an unusually stark choice between establishment and “green” candidates. To make things even more interesting, all four green-leaning candidates have a plausible chance of winning — unlike other recent election cycles.

By “green” I’m referring to candidates who are socially and environmentally progressive — with varying levels of commitment. In the Olympia area, major candidates will largely associate with the Democrats rather than the local Green Party, which is more a discussion group than a political force.

Note that I said that all green candidates have a “plausible chance” rather than “are assured” of winning. On Tuesday night we could see a sweep in either direction — or a mixed bag. The key factor may be turnout, with a larger electorate likely benefitting greens, although not necessarily in a uniform way.

As a case in point, Jim Cooper is highly likely to win reelection to Position 7 against a challenger with no name recognition and a minimalist campaign. The outcome is less clear for greens in three other races:

  • Position 4: Clark Gilman is attempting to retain his appointed seat against Max Brown.
  • Position 5: Lisa Parshley is competing against Allen Miller for an open seat.
  • Position 6: Renata Rollins has challenged incumbent Jeannine Roe.

Emmett O’Connell argues that if this year’s turnout is similar to 2013 or 2015, establishment candidates such as Miller and Roe could be “boxed in” geographically. In other words, even though both did well in a low-turnout primary, the precincts they won have less room to generate the extra votes needed to win a general election.

That’s a reasonable argument. However, each campaign still needs to motivate its supporters to vote.

One way to size up a campaign’s ability to do so is by analyzing donor data. This posting will focus on the three races where candidates chose to fully report their contributions. We are ignoring the fourth race, where both Cooper and his challenger Daniel Marsh are not required to report contributions because they are raising less than $5,000.

But first a few caveats

How much money a candidate has raised should not be seen as a proxy for a good opinion poll. Sometimes an X factor such as name recognition can at least partially compensate for a candidate’s less aggressive fundraising. That was certainly the case in the primary, when Roe won despite being outspent by Rollins.

Even more importantly, the total amount of money a candidate raises is not necessarily as important as how he or she gets it. Paul Gillie — the late, great research director of the state Public Disclosure Commission — argued that the winning candidate usually has the largest number of small, in-district donations.

This is not a fail-safe method of predicting the outcome of a race, but it is a useful metric to keep in mind. With those caveats, let’s analyze donor data reported to the PDC as of Friday, Nov. 3.

Position 4: Will lots of donors prevail over big PAC support?

Max Brown may be young and relatively new to local politics, but he walked into this race with a sizable advantage. His dad, Marty Brown, has been one of the biggest names in capitol campus politics for decades.

Not surprisingly, Max’s campaign contribution list is a who’s who of powerful people such as Chris Gregoire ($100), Dick Thompson ($100), Mark Doumit ($100), Laurie Dolan ($100), Doug Mah ($100), Mark Brown ($100), Jolene Unsoeld ($50), Dean Foster ($38) and Les Eldridge ($35).

Although Marty worked for Democratic governors, Max’s support base has a decidedly bipartisan hue, including Republican leaders such as Ralph Munro ($100) and Gary Alexander ($50) as well as two political action committees that usually support Republicans: the Thurston County Realtors Association ($1,000) and the Affordable Housing Council ($1,000).

Also not surprisingly, Brown the Younger has raised the most of any Olympia city council candidate this year — $33,850. This translates into 192 reported contributors, at an average of $176 per contributor.

Clark Gilman is the antithesis of Max in many ways. He is middle aged, has deep roots in local politics, and his policy stands veer to the left. In keeping with his experience as a labor organizer, Gilman has been running a campaign with populist themes.

As a result, Gilman’s contribution totals are on the low side for an Olympia city council candidate: $21,064. This was generated from 130 reported contributors, at an average of $155 per contribution.

Gilman’s support base looks like a classic green Democrat with strong labor ties. The PACs supporting him include the Thurston County Democrats ($1,000), WFSE Local 443 ($1,000), the Pacific Northwest Regional Council of Carpenters ($1,000), Thurston Environmental Voters ($977) and the Thurston-Mason-Lewis Labor Council ($500).

Individual contributors include Jim Lazar ($774), Dan Leahy ($500), Beth Doglio ($350), Thad Curtz ($300), Beverly Bassett ($155), Laurie Dolan ($150), Sandra Romero ($100) and Marco Rossi ($50).

What can we draw from this? Brown has raised the most money and has the largest base of donors in this election cycle. However, he is weak on PAC dollars — at least aside from the realtors, who don’t hold as much clout in Olympia as elsewhere in Thurston County. Can Gilman’s support from Democratic, labor and environmental PACs translate into get-out-the-vote efforts that neutralize Brown’s money?

Position 5: What matters more — money or broader donor base?

Allen Miller is clearly the establishment candidate in this race, but his donor base presents the profile of a moderate Democrat with some crossover support from relatively moderate Republicans.

As a case in point, as of this writing Miller has not received funding from realtor PACs, although he did get $450 from The Rants Group. However, prominent Republicans such as Ralph Munro ($50), Gary Alexander ($50) and Sam Reed ($37.50) have made donations.

Then there are establishment Democrats such as Dean Foster ($50) and Mark Doumit ($25) mixed in with environmentalists like Bob Jacobs ($75) and Les Eldridge ($67.50). Now add names that suggest that Miller moves in eclectic circles, e.g., Scott Cossu ($500), Steve Boone ($250), Gerry Reilly ($600) and Rhenda Strub ($100).

Miller has only one PAC donation — $210.70 from the Washington State Democrats. This is the smallest number of any of the six candidates whose donor lists are discussed here. He also has raised the least amount of money: $17,902. Yet Miller has 178 donors — second only to Brown — and by far the smallest average donation ($102). Remember, the larger the number of small in-district donors the better.

Lisa Parshley’s donor profile is more conventional — and similar to that of Gilman’s. Her total contributions are only a few thousand higher ($23,970) and the number of contributors a wee bit smaller (126). However, Parshley has a greater proportion of large donations, which puts her average donation per contributor at $182 — the highest of the six candidates.

The PACs that have contributed to Parshley are similar to Gilman’s, although the dollar amounts sometimes vary: WFSE Local 443 ($2,000), Thurston Environmental Voters ($950), Thurston County Democrats ($500), Thurston-Lewis-Mason Labor Council ($500), Washington Teamsters Legislative League ($500), National Womens’ Political Caucus ($400) and Pacific Northwest Council of Carpenters ($300).

Individual donors also show a fair amount of overlap mixed in with interesting differences: Nathaniel Jones ($249.70), Walt Jorgensen ($200), Jim Lazar ($175), Thad Curtz ($100), Laurie Dolan ($100), Carolyn Cox ($50), Beth Doglio ($50) and Jim Cooper ($27).

What can we draw from this? Miller’s donor base is meaningfully larger than Parshley’s but — like Brown — he may be at a disadvantage because of his lack of PAC support. In addition, whereas Brown is has raised substantially more than Gilman, Parshley has outraised Miller by $6,000. Does that translate into a better get-out-the-vote effort?

Position 6: Can a spirited challenger beat an unwounded incumbent?

Jeannine Roe has raised only $20,540, which is the second-lowest amount of the full-reporting candidates. However, she has a solid number of reported contributors (142), with an equally solid average contribution ($142). Perhaps most importantly, she possesses the most balanced range of PAC and individual donors of the establishment candidates.

Unlike Brown and Miller, Roe has managed to obtain donations from a fairly broad range of PACs. She nailed down the Washington Association of Realtors ($1,000), the Affordable Housing Council of the Olympia Master Builders ($250) and Puget Sound Energy ($250) while also landing the Olympia Firefighters ($1,500), the Washington State Council of County and City Employees ($500) and the Washington State Democrats ($212.12).

Roe’s individual donor list includes a substantial number of Democratic Party luminaries such as Karen Fraser ($200), Paul Berendt ($200), Nathaniel Jones ($200), Laurie Dolan ($100), Doug Mah ($100), Denny Heck ($50) and Marty Brown ($50). Her A-list Republican donors are a bit thinner than Brown’s or Miller’s, but the sheer range of Roe’s supporters is as strong as any of the other Olympia candidates: R. E. Jacobs ($200), Bill McGregor ($100), Christine Garst ($75), Charles Shelan ($75), Mark Foutch ($50), Roger Horn ($50) and Neil McClanahan ($50).

Renata Rollins has done the best fundraising of Olympia’s green candidates in this election cycle. She has raised the second-largest amount of money ($28,147) and number of individual donors (186). In addition, her average contribution is a decent $151.

Rollins’ PAC profile is similar to Gilman’s and Parshley’s: Thurston County Democratic Central Committee ($1,000), Thurston Environmental Voters ($976.84), Pacific Northwest Regional Council of Carpenters ($600), Thurston-Lewis-Mason Central Labor Council ($500) and Washington Teamsters Legislative League ($250). However, she also garnered $200 from the Green Party of South Puget Sound.

Rollins’ individual-donor list is a who’s who of local environmental and social-justice activists, e.g., Beverly Basset ($400), Jim Lazar ($350), Meta Hogan ($340), Zena Hartung ($240), Peter Bohmer ($225), Dan Leahy ($200), Stephen Buxbaum ($100), Bethany Weidner ($75) and Chris Stegman ($60).

What can we draw from this? Incumbents tend to win reelection unless they are embroiled in some type of controversy — which Roe is not. Rollins’ donor data suggests that she has run an exceptionally well-oiled campaign for a green candidate. Will that be enough to overcome Roe’s superior name recognition and broad base of support?

Conclusion: Will the sheer number of green candidates increase turnout?

We’ve discussed the races individually, but another factor is how they all play together. If the overriding factor is turnout, will the synergistic impact of individual green campaigns bring more socially and environmentally progressive people to vote than would otherwise be the case?

Or, to be more concrete, can the four candidates collectively elevate turnout in high-green precincts without the presence of a hot-button issue? If the answer is yes, then all four greens could sweep into office.

Of course, it is also possible that only Cooper wins. Each of the other green candidates has meaningful challenges to overcome. For example, Parshley’s fundraising numbers suggest that she is in good shape. However, she is also up against an opponent whose campaign has been unusually aggressive in its attacks (at least for Olympia).

Regardless of how things turn out, much can be learned from this year’s city council races.


3 Comments on What can donor data tell us about Olympia’s races?

  1. One misleading part of your analysis is that you haven’t differentiated between “in-kind” and actual cash contributions. The Dems made an in-kind donation to Miller in the primary – the cost of access to the Votebuilder system – which was later rescinded when they discovered he used nefarious means to score access after having been denied by TCD. Miller had 1 (one) endorsement from a PAC, the Olympia Education Association, and 0 (zero) PAC dollars. Unlike other opponents of the “green candidates,” Miller actually applied and interviewed for support and endorsement from all of the PACs that Parshley got endorsed by. He was denied across the board.

  2. Rob, thank you for the clarification. It wasn’t clear to me from the PDC records that the Washington State Democrats’ donation was in-kind. I worked with the main list of donations rather than clicking into each individual donation.

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