Wake County

In Raleigh elections, big money doesn’t always mean a big win

Bonner Gaylord, who has served eight years on the Raleigh City Council and is well-known in the local business community, spent more than three times as much money as his newcomer opponent in a bid to keep his seat this fall. But it didn’t matter: He lost.

Gaylord wasn’t the only big spender in this month’s election for mayor and seven council seats who fell short. By the time it’s all said and done, three of the four top money-raisers will end up losing. Candidate Stacy Miller lost his bid for an at-large seat, and incumbent Mayor Nancy McFarlane and challenger Charles Francis are headed for a Nov. 7 runoff.

Miller, an attorney, spent the most money leading up to Raleigh’s Oct. 10 election – $188,544. But he came in third in the race for two at-large seats.

McFarlane, who is seeking her fourth two-year term as mayor, spent nearly $167,000 in her re-election bid, and Francis spent nearly $163,500. Voters will return to the polls in that race because neither candidate won a majority of the vote this month.

Money is often a hotly debated issue when it comes to factors that influence elections, particularly in statewide and national races. But it’s less clear how fundraising affects municipal elections.

“I don’t think there’s much expertise and comprehensive analysis of how money works in local races,” said Scott Mooneyham, spokesman for the North Carolina League of Municipalities.

Winners in Raleigh’s recent election outspent losers by roughly $46,000 to $30,500. But other factors were also at play.

In some cases, Raleigh candidates who had plenty of cash on hand lost to opponents who spent less money but ran strong grassroots campaigns focused on reaching voters directly, said Brad Crone of Campaign Connections, a consulting firm hired by Miller’s campaign.

Crone said that was the case for Miller, who spent more than three times as much money as winner Nicole Stewart, a nonprofit organizer new to politics. It was also true for Gaylord, he said, whose District E seat represents North Hills and northwest Raleigh. He lost to Stef Mendell, another political newcomer.

“Stef Mendell, she actually knocked on our door twice,” Crone said. “It caught Bonner (Gaylord) by surprise, because I think everyone had been telling him, ‘You’re OK, you’re OK, you’re OK.’ I think the successful campaigns have been able to build not only a successful fundraising operation but also strong grassroots operations.”

Crone said Miller had the benefit of strong connections to “old-line, blue-blood Raleigh” but wasn’t able to translate a strong fundraising lead into votes. In the final finance reporting period, Stewart got money from 153 donors who gave an average of $142. Miller had 82 donors, but they gave an average of $365.

Miller is registered as an unaffiliated voter, but he received an endorsement from the Wake County Republican Party. The lack of endorsements from left-leaning groups hurt Miller, Crone said, “in a race with partisan undertones.” The current City Council is made up only of Democrats and unaffiliated members, and no Republican won a seat this month.

“The fact that he wasn’t a Democrat really hurt,” Crone said.

Stewart said she set a goal to get 500 donors, and her campaign hired field managers to coordinate volunteers who knocked on doors.

“Most of us in the grassroots community don’t have thousands of dollars we can give away, but if we all pitch in 20 bucks, that 20 bucks becomes real money,” Stewart said. “We weren’t going to spend money on fancy videos and lots of consultants. We were going to spend money on what got us in front of the most voters.”

In the mayor’s race, McFarlane ramped up fundraising efforts this year, raising about $75,000 more and spending about $67,000 more than in the months leading up to the 2015 election. McFarlane said she quickly realized that Francis, an attorney and businessman, wouldn’t have much trouble raising money.

“Looking at the first finance report, I understood that Mr. Francis would have many large donors like Fred Smith funding his campaign,” McFarlane said in an email Thursday, referring to the former Republican state legislator. “In addition, Raleigh has grown considerably since I first ran, and we would need to communicate to voters in many new ways. That meant that we would need a robust budget to compete and made a commitment to not take this race for granted.”

Here is a breakdown of how much each candidate spent through September – and how much each vote cost them. Cost-per-vote is an imperfect metric: District council seats only draw voters who live in that district, but the at-large seats and the mayor’s seat are open to all of Raleigh’s 305,000 registered voters.

Candidates not listed agreed to spend less than $1,000 and were therefore not obliged to file campaign finance reports.


Nancy McFarlane – Spent $166,945, received 25,414 votes. Cost per vote: $6.57.

Charles Francis – Spent $163,458, received 19,232 votes. Cost per vote: $8.50.

City Council at-large

Stacy Miller – Spent $188,544, received 15,623 votes. Cost per vote: $12.07.

Nicole Stewart – Spent $53,113, received 21,714 votes. Cost per vote: $2.44.

Russ Stephenson – Spent $30,844, received 26,680 votes, making him the top vote-getter of any candidate for any office in Raleigh this year. Cost per vote: $1.16. Stephenson, an incumbent, kept his seat.

Zainab Baloch – Spent $21,810, received 10,406 votes. Cost per vote: $2.10

Sheila Alamin-Khashoggi – Spent $6,163, received 10,822 votes. Cost per vote: 57 cents

Robb Ward – Spent $242, received 7,104 votes. Cost per vote: 3 cents.

District A

Dickie Thompson – Spent $26,929, received 8,255 votes. Cost per vote: $3.26.

Alex Moore – Spent $570, received 4,034 votes. Cost per vote: 14 cents.

District B

David Cox – Spent $16,912, received 5,239 votes. Cost per vote: $3.23

John Odom – Spent $11,582, received 2,340 votes. Cost per vote: $4.77

District C

Corey Branch – Finance reports were not immediately available. He won 8,708 votes.

Olen Watson – Spent $2,861 and received 359 votes. Cost per vote: $7.97

District D:

Kay Crowder – Spent $14,304 and received 7,561 votes. Cost per vote: $1.89

District E:

Bonner Gaylord – Spent $41,439 and received 4,976 votes. Cost per vote: $8.33

Stef Mendell – Spent $12,406 and received 5,492 votes. Cost per vote: $2.26

Gargan: 919-829-4807; @hgargan