Jim Mains, a political consultant, remembers the advice he gave to candidates in 2007: Don’t announce your campaign too early.
Back then, he said he advised candidates not to announce until May or April of the election year, giving them seven to eight months to campaign before the fall election.
“It felt really competitive then but it wasn’t that early,” said Mains, now a partner at the marketing firm High Five Media.
Times changed. In 2013 Chuck Atkins announced his campaign for Clark County sheriff well over a year before the election. Mains recalled seeing a campaign sign for Atkins up before Christmas. Eventually, Atkins won his race.
“It’s a great strategy getting your name out,” he recalled thinking. “As much as people hate signs, it does work.”
Now, although the November 2018 election is over a year away, multiple candidates in Clark County have announced their campaigns. Political observers say that this could be part of a trend of state and local campaigns increasingly resembling federal races, which are more expensive, vitriolic and never-ending.
“People would wait until the election year,” said Clark County council Chair Marc Boldt. “But now it’s all up in the air.”
Boldt, a former Republican state representative and county commissioner, announced his bid for county chair as an independent in March 2015 and was elected that fall. He’s up for reelection in November 2018. While he intends to run, he said he’s been too busy to file campaign paperwork or hold a kickoff event. That hasn’t stopped state Rep. Liz Pike, R-Camas, from announcing in August that she’s also running for chair.
When asked why she announced so early, Pike responded with a text saying that it would add more transparency to the race.
“This legislative seat belongs to the people and they deserve the opportunity to fully vet all candidates,” she wrote.
Pike’s bid for council chair opens up her House seat, which also is up for election in November 2018. In the recent past, Clark County legislative candidates typically announced their campaigns early in the election year or in the spring, according to The Columbian’s archives.
But three candidates have already announced bids for Pike’s 18th District seat, including Republicans John Ley, an airline pilot, and Larry Hoff, the retired head of a local credit union — as well as Democrat Kathy Gillespie, a two-term Vancouver school board director. In September, Vancouver activist James Tolson announced he would challenge state Rep. Vicki Kraft, R-Vancouver, for her 17th District seat.
Clark County Auditor Greg Kimsey and County Clerk Scott Weber are up for reelection next year and filed their reelection paperwork in 2015.
When asked, Tolson, Gillespie and Hoff said they announced early to have time to connect to voters.
“Let me interpret for you,” said Cornell Clayton, Thomas S. Foley Distinguished Professor of Government at Washington State University. “What they are saying is they need to time to raise money….To run a successful campaign at the local level you need more money than you did a decade ago or two decades ago.”
Clayton said that announcing early also allows candidates to gain more name recognition and to get their message out to potential donors before potential competitors.
According to data from the Washington State Public Disclosure Commission, $12.9 million has been raised so far in 2017 for local elections.
At the legislative level, candidates have already raised nearly $2 million for 2018. In the 2016 election cycle, they raised $28.1 million and $26.8 million in 2014.
Two local early filers have already raised large sums. Pike has raised more than $20,000. Kimsey has raised $42,626.
Mains said that it makes sense for candidates to announce early because “There’s only so much money to go around locally.”
Clayton said that research has shown that Washington has become one of the most politically polarized states in the country. He said that polarization turns ordinary policy-making into opportunities to gain advantage in the next election, which he said is a feature of the “permanent campaign” that’s come to characterize federal elections.
“The permanent election is making its way down to the state and local level,” he said.
Todd Donovan, a political science professor at Western Washington University, said that candidates will announce early to raise money to scare off potential challengers. He also said that U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders’ 2016 campaign for president mobilized more first-time candidates to run for local offices. He said the presidency of Donald Trump has also caused people to become more aware of politics. Both could lead to a more crowded field of candidates with more competition for money.
Mains also said that the tone of national politics is trickling down to the local level. He said that some candidates may announce early to better control their messaging.
“You want to define yourself before your opponent defines you,” he said.
Mains also added that another reason why candidates might declare early is because they need to compete with the constant distractions voters experience from their increasingly online lives.
Successfully running for Congress may require an even earlier start.
Mains said that for a congressional candidate to be considered viable by larger donors in Washington, D.C., a candidate needs to raise $300,000 before even announcing. He said congressional districts tend to cover larger areas, which require more money and more campaigning.
“I know people are going to tell you, ‘I’m going to win it without money,'” he said. “I haven’t seen that work yet.”
Congresswoman Jaime Herrera Beutler, R-Battle Ground, is up for reelection in November 2018 and has $433,170 on hand, according to her most recent filing.
With criticism of the Republican Congress and President Donald Trump’s low approval ratings, Clayton said that some Democrats anticipate 2018 to be a “wave election” giving them a shot at unseating Herrera Beutler.
In 2016, David McDevitt filed his paperwork to run as a Democrat against Herrera Beutler just hours before the deadline. He lost the primary election, but wasted little time in starting his second run. He registered in November 2016.
According to his campaign filings, he’s raised $211,902, including a $200,000 loan he made to his campaign.
Dorothy Gasque, another Democratic candidate, announced her bid in February of this year. She’s raised $9,897. Peter Harrison, the third Democrat in the race, got a relatively late start, announcing his bid this month. So far, he hasn’t reported raising any money.
Katy Sword of The Columbian contributed to this report.