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As a Congressional Race Turns One, a Look at Its Finances…

UPDATED 11:32AM 7/17/20: To note Morse has now bought TV time, but not in the quarter new FEC reports cover.

US Capitol

Can’t buy me love from voters? Or can you? (WMassP&I)

Nearly a year after the faceoff began between Congressman Richard Neal and Holyoke Mayor Alex Morse, the money race is coming into clear relief. Last July, Morse kicked off his challenge to Neal for the Democratic nomination for Massachusetts’s 1st Congressional District. The mostly quiet race slogged along until coronavirus almost benighted it entirely.

Things have heated up, but the course of campaign financing has barely changed. New campaign finance reports filed with the Federal Election Commission show Neal barely edging Morse in fundraising for the second quarter. However, Neal came into the period, which runs from April 1 to June 30, with millions more. Even after hiking spending this quarter, the incumbent retains a 14-1 cash on hand advantage.

The reports show that Morse raked in $322,000 last quarter and had $315,000 cash on hand. Neal, by contrast, raised $337,000 and ended the quarter with $4.2 million.

Of Morse’s contributions, individuals contributed all but $3500—this amount was from political committees this quarter. Among Neal’s, about $55,000 came from individuals with the rest from PACs. Both enjoyed significant amounts of contributions from out of state and district in this and past reports.

Morse has sought to make an issue of the source of Neal’s fundraising, pointing to the PACs and large dollar donors giving to the congressman. The mayor draws a contrast by pointing to the  smaller dollar donation he has garnered.

Mass Congressional Districts

Current Massachusetts’s Districts. The 1st is in brown/red. (via wikipedia)

Massachusetts’s 1st Congressional district includes virtually all of Berkshire and Hampden counties, the western fringes of Franklin and Hampshire counties, and southwestern Worcester County.

In a statement Thursday released after both candidates’ reports were available online, the Morse campaign alleged that Neal was using his perch as Chair of the House Ways & Committee to benefit wealthy contributors at the expense of constituents.

“But Alex Morse’s grassroots-powered movement is going to make Neal’s transactional, pay-to-play brand of politics a thing of the past,” said Morse finance director Tamar Katz.

If that is the case, it is a somewhat recent phenomenon. There is some indication that Morse got a shot in the arm after challengers that had support from the same groups as he won primaries in New York last month. Being so close to the end of the filing period, though it is hard to judge the breadth of the surge.

Morse did have his best fundraising period in Q2 of 2020, as he had touted earlier this week. Yet, his total fundraising remains well below expectations he himself set. Last year, Morse had aimed to raise $3 million over the course of the campaign. Instead, his total fundraising is just shy of $841,000 with only about six weeks to go before the primary. Another pre-primary report should come out next month.

Neal’s fundraising was lower than in previous quarters. A prolific fundraiser, this turn is not surprising given the outbreak of COVID-19. While the congressman’s spending ratcheted up,  expenses clearly attributable to in-person fundraising evaporated early in this quarter. A campaign spokesperson indicated much of his attention has been on the official side.

“This quarter, while Alex Morse was pledging to vote against the Paycheck Protection Program”—a coronavirus relief program—”and selling $18 masks on the his website, Richie Neal was securing billions in COVID-19 relief for working people…and still out-raised Alex,” said Neal spokesperson Kate Norton.

Cong. Richard Neal during an corona-era press conference in May. (WMP&I)

Aside from both campaigns axing most expenses for fundraising—e.g. food, air/rail travel and lodging—spending for both campaigns followed patterns from prior quarters.

For Neal, overall spending grew to $639,000 from $318,000.

His staff has grown to include several field organizers in addition to other campaign staff. Total payroll for the quarter was about $92,000. Another $124,000 went to consultants including Norton’s firm. Among Neal’s consulting spending is $34,000 for fundraising and another $55,000 for “media and survey.” The latter likely covers polling.

However, the biggest growth was in advertising. Neal has spent nearly $300,000 producing and placing ads. A third of that is production and the rest went to media placement. Federal Communications Commission records show Neal is on the air on cable, broadcast television and radio. The Facebook Ad Library also identifies dozens of ads, many of which play video.

The remainder of the spending went to incidentals, software, food, automotive costs, fees and payroll taxes.

Morse spent about $145,000 down slightly from $159,000 the quarter before. In the current quarter, his payroll was up to about $22,000. Unlike Neal, Morse pays his campaign manager as a consultant rather than as an employee. To make a more apples-to-apples comparison as possible, when including Morse’s campaign manager, his payroll would be $39,000.

Alex Morse Congress announcement

Alex Morse, at his kickoff last July. Will better be enough? (WMassP&)

Consultants to Morse added up to $50,000. They cover a wide range of work from compliance to digital to fundraising to grassroots strategy analysis.

The rest of Morse’s spending went to software, incidental, taxes, fees and gas for travel.

Morse has not yet spent any money on ads beyond Facebook. There was no specific expense for Facebook in his report, but the social media leviathan’s ad library suggests he spent at least $600. It was likely more because Morse placed one Facebook ad in June that ran into July.

During the second quarter Morse did not buy television time—although he did inquire about radio in May. However, he has since bought time starting this month. Additionally, a dark money group has begun a $300,000 ad run Neal. Fight Corporate Monopolies, a 501c4 group that faces less stringent disclosure requirements than candidates, began carpet-bombing him this month.

The only other local competitive federal primary is the US Senate race. Incumbent Senator Ed Markey raised $1.9 million last quarter and spent just under $1.6 million. He closed the quarter with $4.8 million.

The challenger, Newton Congressman Joseph Kennedy, III, also raised $1.9 million, but Kennedy spent nearly $3.4 million, driven by paid advertising. Kennedy’s June 30 cash-on-hand was about even with Markey’s because the former had more cash going into Q2.