On paper, Alaska Republican Senate candidate Dan Sullivan looks like a dream recruit for Republicans. A former state attorney general and natural resources commissioner, Sullivan brings to the race statewide governing experience and a military background with the Marine Corps, to boot. He also set a torrid fundraising pace since entering, raising $1.2 million at the end of last year—numbers that cement his standing as a top-tier candidate.
But behind those fundraising numbers lies an uncomfortable truth: Most of the money he's raised has come from outside of Alaska. And that underscores his biggest vulnerability in the Senate race: He's spent most of his life outside of the state.
Fighting the perception of being an outsider—while raising money from ideological donors instead of in-state contributors—is a challenge faced by several top Senate recruits from both parties. In Kentucky, Democrat Alison Lundergan Grimes has been lambasted by Republicans for receiving sizable donations from Hollywood bigwigs like Jeffrey Katzenberg. Iowa Republican Senate candidate Mark Jacobs is raising most of his money from Texas, where he was an energy executive. Sullivan has raised more money from his birthplace of Ohio than he has from Alaska so far.
In this era of big-money Senate campaigns, it's not at all unusual for a majority of a candidate's money to come from out of state. But having any one state supply more campaign cash than a candidate's home state is rare, and that's exactly what has happened with Sullivan, Grimes, and Jacobs. It's also a sign that their candidacies are being driven as much by outside interests as they are by grassroots support.
Grimes has disclosed raising just over $1 million from Californians and just under a million from Kentuckians so far, according to a review of her campaign finance records, while the majority of Jacobs's donations (nearly $250,000) come not from Iowa but from Texas. In Sullivan's case, more than $410,000 from Ohio—where Sullivan was born, and where his brother runs the family's paint-manufacturing company—made the Buckeye State his top supplier of campaign funds.
Sullivan raised more than $130,000 in itemized donations from over 100 Alaskans last year, but he brought in over three times as much from almost as many Ohio donors at the same time. In Iowa, Jacobs collected about $125,000 from locals, accounting for a little more than half of his total disclosed donations. (Jacobs has also given his own campaign more than $300,000.)
Both Republicans just completed their first disclosure period as candidates, and if they follow the same pattern as Grimes, their in-state donations may tick up as the campaigns hit full gear. Grimes raised more Kentucky money than California money in the last fundraising period of 2013, but big donations from a small number of Californians—including actors Tom Hanks and Renee Zellweger, producer Judd Apatow, and former boxer Sugar Ray Leonard—maintained the Golden State as Grimes's primary source of funds.
The candidates' out-of-state fundraising successes reinforce some of their opponents' key narratives. Democratic Sen. Mark Begich and Alaska Lt. Gov. Mead Treadwell, a Republican candidate, have cast Sullivan as an outsider in a state that's wary of them. (Treadwell, who was born and raised in Connecticut, memorably said, "I've got a jar of mayonnaise in my refrigerator that's been there longer than Dan Sullivan's been in Alaska.") Allies of Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell have called Grimes's California fundraising an indication that she's out of touch with Kentucky voters. And another GOP contender in Iowa, Joni Ernst, has attacked Jacobs's Texas connection before.
But these arguments have a flip side. Grimes actually raised a greater share of her money in-state than McConnell has, and in the most recent disclosure period, Grimes outraised McConnell in Kentucky. Jacobs's Iowa haul "basically matched" those of his GOP competitors in their first quarters, according to the Iowa Republican. And if you count small, un-itemized donations, Sullivan actually narrowly outraised Begich among Alaskans in the fourth quarter, according to the Sullivan campaign.
More importantly, the candidates can use their out-of-state money to build up their images in-state, which matters much more than accusations about funding sources in the end. Jacobs has been running TV and radio ads in Iowa since the end of last year, and Sullivan is already on the radio in Alaska, too.
"The Sullivan for Senate campaign is honored and humbled by the support we have received from hundreds of Alaskans and Americans across the country who recognize the importance of the Senate race in Alaska," Sullivan spokesman Mike Anderson said in a statement.
The out-of-state fundraising reflects how difficult it is to finance a big-ticket Senate campaign these days. None of these states—and few states at all, anymore—have the donor power to supply most of the money for an eight-digit spending war. In Iowa and Alaska, GOP primaries have added an extra degree of difficulty, splitting the pie there and even inducing some donors to sit out the nominating contest and wait to donate to the eventual nominee.
In the meantime, though, these candidates have to deal with the reality that outsiders are providing more of their resources than people in their states.
This article appears in the February 21, 2014 edition of NJ Daily.