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Senator campaign funds uneven in Ohio

U.S. Senate candidate Jennifer Brunner’s final fundraising figures for the quarter were weak.

The Democratic secretary of state has raised $583,000 and spent the better portion of it, leaving her with just $112,000 in the bank, federal filings show. For good reason, she had not earlier reported the numbers when her rivals were touting their millions.

Brunner has raised only about a quarter of the money of her rival for the Democratic nomination, Lt. Gov. Lee Fisher, and less than a tenth of what presumptive Republican nominee Rob Portman has raised.

The three are among candidates vying to replace U.S. Sen. George Voinovich, the veteran Republican retiring next year.

Money isn’t everything in politics, but it’s an awful lot.

David Levinthal, a spokesman for the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics, which specializes in campaign finance analysis, said good candidates have been known to win without big bank accounts but it’s rare.

“In many cases, not all, campaign fundraising can be seen as a proxy for support,” he said. “If you’re unable to fund-raise to a great degree then, in many cases, that shows that a candidate may have a lack of broad-based support for their candidacy.”

Brunner has sought to allay such speculation by casting herself as the underdog in two ways. First, she is female — and, she points out, Ohio has never elected a female senator nor a female governor. Second, she is the Democrat who wasn’t endorsed by Gov. Ted Strickland, the titular head of the Ohio Democratic Party and the friend and political partner of Fisher.

Fisher and Brunner have raised a combined $3.1 million, half the $6.2 million Portman, a former congressman and Bush budget director, has raised without a significant well-known opponent.

Levinthal said Brunner’s money woes may not be a signal that she lacks public support. Democratic donors may indeed be waiting to see who prevails in the primary before pouring cash into either campaign, he said.

“Some people will st ay agnostic in primaries in terms of their campaign contributions,” he said. “Any time you’re having a family fight, it’s difficult. Do you take sides with Mom or Dad or Cousin Joe? It’s not a situation everyone wants to involve themselves in financially.”

But even the best campaign cannot survive forever without money, Levinthal said.

“There’s a perception element, then there’s just the ability-to-function element,” he said. “In statewide campaigns and congressional campaigns, candidates often need to raise large sums of money to stay on TV, to buy advertisements, to hire staff, to buy office space. All these things are basic these days to run a competitive campaign.”

Brunner has already begun to shed staff as her bank account shrinks.

During the 2008 election cycle, the average winning Senate candidate spent $8.53 million, the Center for Responsive Politics’ analysis showed. The average loser spent $4.13 million. The least expensive winning campaign cost $1.98 million.

“That says if you didn’t spend $2 million or more, you didn’t win,” Levinthal said.

And the amounts have been on the rise over the past decade.

During the 1998 election cycle, the average winning campaign cost $5.22 million, or $6.8 million in 2008 dollars. The average losing campaign cost $2.83 million, or $3.7 million in 2008 dollars. The least expensive winning campaign cost $1.1 million, or $1.5 million when adjusted for inflation.

It may be that Brunner, a protege of sitting U.S. Sen. Sherrod Brown, is taking solace in what happened the last time Ohio elected a senator.

Brown outlasted (some say steamrolled) a popular rival — Iraqi war veteran Paul Hackett of Cincinnati — to grab the party’s nomination. Brown then prevailed in the following pricey contest against incumbent Republican Mike DeWine.

According to campaign finance filings from the time, he raised and spent less money than his rival — $9 million to DeWine’s $12 million raised, and $11 million to DeWine’s $14 million spent.

Yet Brown had a long relationship with Ohio voters that Brunner does not.

In a recent Quinnipiac University poll, more than half of Ohio voters knew little about either her or Fisher, with Brunner’s numbers the worse of the two. Fifty-eight percent of respondents said they knew too little about her to form an opinion — including almost half of registered Democrats.

Changing that situation — along with paying for a campaign team and ultimately winning a general election — all cost money.

“You can have the most wonderful ideas in the world,” Levinthal said, “but if you have no way to publicize them it is hard to reach the people you need to reach.”

Julie Carr Smyth is a correspondent for the Ohio Associated Press.