Sarah Huckabee Sanders (left) and Chris Jones are shown in this undated combination photo. The two are running for Arkansas governor on the Republican and Democratic Party tickets, respectively.
Two months shy of election day, Republican and former White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders reports heaps of campaign cash on hand, $6.3 million, to finance her final stretch in the Arkansas governor’s race.
Democrat Chris Jones — physicist, political newcomer and long shot in a red Southern state — claims barely a pocketful by comparison, $118,800.
Eyeing the numbers, some Republican political observers question whether the Jones campaign can keep the lights on, much less get his name in front of voters between now and Nov. 8.
A Little Rock political consultant who has run two Arkansas Republican governors’ campaigns, Jon Gilmore, believes the Jones campaign has spent too much too early, what he calls a “fatal mistake.”
Now in the closing weeks, “They can’t tell the voters who they are and what they stand for,” he said.
Jones campaign manager Rhonna-Rose Akama-Makia said her candidate faced an expensive start-up, but has raised enough overall so far, nearly $2.6 million, to compete. She added that he will have enough on hand to continue meeting voters.
Meantime, “payroll still goes through, rent still gets paid,” Akama-Makia said. “We’re confident with our numbers that we’re on track with our goals to run our race.”
Sanders’ staffers declined to talk about the campaign contribution gap. Neither Sanders nor Jones was available to be interviewed for this article. In a statement, Sanders expressed appreciation for “generous support.”
Political watchers from both parties say that based on past campaigns, contribution money on hand will dictate how the rest of the 2022 Arkansas governor race plays out.
Both candidates will ask for votes, but will have different options for how to do that.
Sanders will find it easy to load up media time and pay for consultants, travel and other expenses, according to former campaign managers and candidates. Her campaign already has spent $9.7 million of almost $16 million total raised so far, according to the most recent available campaign finance disclosure reports.
Jones, who has spent $2.5 million of the $2.6 million total he’s raised, will likely struggle to buy TV and expensive media messaging, according to campaign experts. Instead, he will travel the state and shake hands at public events and front-porch fundraisers.
Jim Keet, the 2010 Republican candidate for governor, knows from experience that a large stash of contribution dollars in a campaign’s final weeks decides a lot.
“The old saying is that money is the mother’s milk of politics,” Keet said. “It’s very difficult in this age to compete if you don’t have adequate funds to do so.”
A former state senator and restaurateur, Keet reported $47,441 on hand before Labor Day for his 2010 gubernatorial race. Arkansas leaned Democrat then. The popular incumbent, Democratic Gov. Mike Beebe, had $3 million.
Early in the Keet campaign, his team spent on production and television while hoping for large-donor help from Republican groups. The money didn’t materialize.
By the final weeks, “we didn’t have the financial wherewithal to do media and large blocks of advertising,” he said. “So I was in every part of the state, every day. It’s more hand-to-hand combat — going to functions, to gatherings people would orchestrate for me.”
In nine months of campaigning, Keet says he took six days off. He lost to Beebe, whom he considers a friend, 64% to 34%.
In political campaigns, “people want to support someone who is likely to succeed,” said Arkansas State Chamber of Commerce President Randy Zook. “They’re not likely to throw good money around where they don’t have a chance at success.”
Sanders has captured in-state and out-of-state donors, big-money donors and political action committees (PACs) connected with businesses and other groups, according to campaign contribution disclosure data for the Arkansas governor’s race so far.
PACs representing interests including Walmart, Tyson Foods, real estate agents, pharmacists and eye doctors have combined to give about $208,000 to Sanders’ campaign so far. All campaign finance contribution data for this article is from candidates’ reports from 2021 through Aug. 15 filings with the Arkansas secretary of state.
Jones’ reports show less than $1,000 from PACs and special interests.
Zook said business owners like Sanders’ support for workforce improvements such as better education and training for future workers. And they approve of her promises to cut taxes — “a wide range of taxes, not just income taxes,” he said.
“Look, Chris [Jones] has been a good candidate,” Zook said. “He’s an appealing fellow, a heck of a personality. He’s obviously bright. But today’s political divide in Arkansas is pretty stark. The issues that resonate with most Arkansas voters are the ones the Republicans are effectively delivering. And that reflects the national mood, as well.”
Sanders also is far ahead in contributions from both Arkansans and out-of-staters, with more than half of her campaign donations coming from people who live outside Arkansas, according to campaign finance disclosure data.
The Sanders campaign has received more than $7.6 million so far from donors in other states, or about 57% of her total among donors listed by name and address in campaign contribution data. (State rules don’t require candidates to identify donors of less than $50.) Her in-state contributions are at almost $5.8 million.
Jones has received almost $900,000 from out-of-state donors, or about 46% of his contributions from identified donors. Contributors with Arkansas addresses have given a little over $1 million.
For perspective, Sanders’ $7.6 million in out-of-state money, with at least two months of fundraising left in the race, is more than any past Arkansas gubernatorial candidate has raised in total contributions for an entire campaign, according to news reports and political observers.
The reasons behind Sanders’ out-of-state money, political experts and donors say, include her national profile as White House press secretary for President Donald Trump, with her face and statements broadcast frequently in national news reports. She also profits from Trump’s endorsement and the continued national presence of her father, former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, who ran for president in 2008.
After Arkansans, Floridians are among her largest contributors, at just more than $1 million. Trump’s Mar-a-Lago residence is there, and Sanders’ parents moved back to Arkansas from Florida in December 2020.
Jones’ largest contributions outside Arkansas have come from California, $182,000, and Massachusetts, $119,800. Jones lived 15 years in Massachusetts and made many contacts there, his campaign said, while he earned a master’s degree in nuclear engineering and a doctorate in urban planning at the Massachusetts Institute for Technology in Cambridge.
Big-money donors, in and out of Arkansas, also have stacked up for Sanders.
Arkansas’ campaign contribution limits currently are $2,900 per candidate, per race. That means the most generous donor could give a governor’s candidate this year $2,900 for the primary election and $2,900 for the general election. To look at big donors, the Democrat-Gazette examined contributions of $2,500 and up.
Sanders lists $5.5 million from those largest donors, or 34.6% of all campaign contributions.
Jones reports $299,575, or about 11.6% of his total.
To examine the candidates’ fundraising, the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette analyzed more than 100,000 lines of campaign contribution data since 2021 for Sanders, Jones and Libertarian candidate Ricky Harrington, the three names on the ballot for Arkansas governor in November. The data can be downloaded from the Arkansas secretary of state’s campaign finance disclosure system.
Harrington has reported Aug. 15 raising about $31,705 in total contributions, with $14,581 on hand.
About the funding divide with Sanders, he wrote in a text: “The obvious challenge is that I do not have excess capital to spend on political marketing and other typical media products.”
STRUGGLE FOR CASH
Grant Tennille started his job as Arkansas Democratic Party chairman last October, after Sanders and Jones announced their bids for governor. He’s been fundraising ever since.
“It is incredibly difficult for Democrats to raise money in Arkansas,” he said. “I am turned down a lot more often than I am given a donation. There are fewer standing up saying, ‘I am a Democrat.'”
Against this backdrop, Jones is the first Black candidate to be nominated by a major party to run for governor in Arkansas, which comes with its own fundraising challenges, Tennille said.
Tennille acknowledges that in politics, “If you bet on the person who raises the most money, you’re going to win most of the time.”
Nevertheless, Tennille said what he and Jones talk about is: “You can’t worry about her money. What you’ve got to do is raise the money to run the race that you want to run.”
“If he can get there, he’s going to wind up happy, proud and hopefully successful in the end,” Tennille said.
Tennille remains hopeful that fundraising will improve for his candidate. When Tennille called contacts this summer, he said, they told him August is slow, but: “Call me back in September. There’s money in the ground for Chris that will start picking up.”
“David versus Goliath doesn’t seem adequate” to describe the divide in campaign contributions between major party candidates in this year’s Arkansas’ governors race, said Janine Parry, University of Arkansas at Fayetteville political science professor.
But she says it reflects the climate in Arkansas and the country.
Campaign money started “exploding in the early 2000s. The pace continues unabated,” she said. “It’s about money and polarization and the return of one-party monopolies.”
“A lot of states are headed in this direction,” said Parry, who’s writing a book on the topic. And not just Republican-leaning states: “We’re seeing it in Massachusetts, California, Hawaii, Vermont, that are every bit as blue as red states are red.”
Arkansas now is not unlike its first 140 years, she said. “The off-brand candidates, which were Republicans and now are Democrats, will do really well to exceed 38% of the statewide vote. It will have very little to do with qualifications. It will have to do with resources and brand. And those are so intermingled, they are the same thing.”
Along with the divide in campaign contributions, researchers see widening splits in average vote margins, measured in high-profile statewide Arkansas races, she said.
The average vote gap between major parties in the Arkansas governor, lieutenant governor, attorney general and secretary of state races in 2014 averaged 17 points; by 2018, it was 29 points, Parry said.
This election year, she won’t be surprised to see a 40-point gap.
“It’s real hard for even a candidate of excellent credentials — not political credentials, but a well-qualified, charismatic candidate — to get any traction in this climate,” Parry said. “It’s Jones’ cross to bear, that he’s thrown his hat in the ring when all of those forces are so stacked against him.”
POSITION TO WIN
Little Rock strategist Gilmore, campaign manager for Hutchinson’s 2014 campaign and chief strategist for his 2018 re-election, says he would have set aside more of Democrat Jones’ $2.6 million in campaign contributions for use in the last few weeks of this year’s campaign.
In 2014, against then-Democratic Congressman Mike Ross, Hutchinson raised about $4 million to Ross’s $6 million, Gilmore said in an email. “What I did was conserve resources to match Ross on television. I thought it important as a campaign manager to ensure that my candidate have the resources to compete on television to put us in position to win.”
About this year’s governor’s race, “I’ve never seen the momentum for a candidate that Sarah Sanders has,” Gilmore said. “But people aren’t just in love with Republicans. You have to run an effective campaign, and that is what she and her team are doing.”
Jones campaign manager Akama-Makia said her candidate faced a challenging and high-cost startup, with the state Democratic Party in a “regrowing” phase since losing control of the legislature and statewide offices by 2014.
“It’s been a while” since Democrats have been organized, Akama-Makia said. “We had to prepare our own structure for this cycle,” which cost money.
Democrat and former Gov. Beebe said Jones was at a big disadvantage at the start of the campaign because of Sanders’ national recognition and affiliation with Trump, who carried Arkansas by 61% in 2016 and 62% in 2020.
“All you can do is keep fighting and keep working, go to as many events, shake as many hands as possible,” Beebe said. “When you don’t have money, you have to make it a personal appearance and hard-work campaign. I think Chris Jones is doing that.”
Beebe says Arkansans have always favored “retail politics” in this “big-enough, small-enough” state.
“In Arkansas, the voters expect to see you,” he said. “They have a history of wanting to touch and see the candidates. [Former Democratic Gov. and President Bill] Clinton was a master at that.”
Win or lose, there’s merit to voters’ hearing multiple points of view, says former gubernatorial candidate Keet.
People have asked why he decided to run in a Democratic state in 2010, against incumbent Beebe then rated one of the nation’s most popular governors.
“Without competition, our system dies,” Keet said. “In the absence of good, competing ideas, you don’t have good government.”