'Never seen anything like this': Arizona candidates for governor raise big bucks — and spend it, too

Stacey Barchenger
Arizona Republic

Eight leading candidates for Arizona governor collectively raised an eye-popping $17 million in 2021, fueling the race to replace Republican Gov. Doug Ducey as it accelerates into the election year.

Of that wealth, about $6 million was already spent trying to influence the primary vote this August, leaving the coffers of a few hopefuls running low as their deep-pocketed opponents are just gearing up.

Democrat Katie Hobbs has spent half of the over $2.9 million she brought in. Republican Kari Lake and Democrat Marco López have each spent three-quarters of their total fundraising. Republican Matt Salmon is down to about 40% of his donations left in the bank.

The spending counts and fundraising hauls are documented in lengthy campaign finance reports, the first for this election cycle, filed by each candidate on Jan. 15. They help the contest to lead the Grand Canyon State come into focus with eight months before the primary election.

Kimberly Yee, the lowest fundraiser, dropped out of the race for the GOP nomination and announced she would instead seek a second term as state treasurer. Meanwhile the Republican ticket's wealthiest candidates, businessman Steve Gaynor and developer Karrin Taylor Robson, recently began dipping into their millions to get their platforms in front of voters.

Taylor Robson, who had $3 million in the bank to end the year, released a new advertisement filmed at the Mexico border, pledging to send more National Guard troops to the border and finish the border wall.

Her campaign confirmed it would spend over $2.5 million to air the advertisement statewide, on broadcast television, cable and radio through the end of February. Taylor Robson bought $430,000 worth of airtime this week alone.

Meanwhile Gaynor, who has about $4.7 million in the bank — which is his own money, save for $8,600 from individual contributions — traveled to the border for a "fact finding" trip on Tuesday.

The fundraising for candidates on both sides of the aisle is record-breaking at this stage of the race and some say reflects Arizona's prominence on the national stage — and its purplish hue.

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"I've never seen anything like this, this many people, as well-funded as they are," said Chuck Coughlin, president of the Republican consulting firm HighGround in Phoenix, who has worked in Arizona politics for decades. "In my career in Arizona running, witnessing and being a participant in a campaign, I've never seen as much money in a campaign cycle."

The flood of cash reflects "real angst amongst donor bases about future elections, where the country's going, like everybody else is feeling," he said.

But money is only part of a campaign: Candidates must distinguish who they are, and who they'd be as governor. That's where advertising comes in, and this year, it's starting earlier than past election cycles.

“I think this is what it looks like to be in a swing state," Ian Danley, who ran Democrat David Garcia's campaign against Ducey in 2018, said of the fundraising hauls and early advertising buys.

Republican slate raises millions

Taylor Robson is now working to get her platform across the state, and said the campaign would "spend what's necessary to reach every voter to win in November."

She's well poised to do so using her own wealth, but said in an interview this week that she will continue fundraising efforts, too. In 2021, Taylor Robson raised about $3.7 million, with about $1.7 million from contributions.

"If I can't get people to invest in me and my campaign and support my campaign, I don't deserve the job," Taylor Robson said.

Taylor Robson, a developer and former member of the Arizona Board of Regents that oversees the state's public universities, said voters should be cautious of her opponents who are burning through cash and consider their ability to balance a budget. Taylor Robson didn't name names, but she was talking about Lake and Salmon.

"Some of my opponents have already spent over half, and one of them even three quarters, of the dollars they've raised," she said. "I think that should raise some flags for people in particular when we're running for a job that entails a $14 billion dollar budget. You have to be a good steward of your money and spend it wisely."

Lake, who raised $1.46 million and spent all but $375,000 of it, has the least amount of cash to spend going into 2022. But she also has advantages, including her two-decade tenure as a local news anchor on Fox 10, and the endorsement of Donald Trump, which has raised her profile among his die-hard followers.

Generally, candidates have spent their money building teams of consultants and staff, or setting up their campaigns and fundraising apparatus. In one noteworthy cost, Lake paid over $50,000 to Mar-a-lago, Trump's Florida resort where she had a November fundraiser.

The former television anchor pushed back on the suggestion that having less cash in the bank meant mismanagement in an email to The Arizona Republic. She said her cash was spent building a "big lead."

"I think when someone gives you money for your campaign, they’re hoping to invest in a win," Lake said. "Using the funds we have to get into the lead IS responsible financial management. And even with a ton of money you can’t buy the 27-year relationship with the people of Arizona that I have."

Meanwhile Salmon and Hobbs, who have both spent significant amounts of their fundraising, say their campaigns are building momentum.

"Matt has demonstrated a unique ability to drive the conversation in this campaign and looks forward to continuing to do so as the year heats up," Salmon's campaign spokesman Colin Shipley said. "He will also continue work to ensure the campaign has the necessary resources to communicate his proven conservative message and turn out voters in August."

The dollars for the Democratic ticket

Hobbs tallied the most contributions from individuals of any candidate, banking $2.88 million. She led the Democratic slate in fundraising, her opponents López and former state Rep. Aaron Lieberman of Paradise Valley raised $1.1 million and $1.16 million, respectively.

López's campaign said the high rate of spending so far reflects their work to build grassroots supporters, and touted the number of smaller-dollar donors, who could give again and boost his income ahead of the primary.

"We're proud that 90% of our contributions are $25 or less, because it's going to take a people-powered movement to beat Kari Lake in November," López's campaign manager Philip Stein said.

A review of Hobbs' fundraising report doesn't point to her campaign suffering financially from a discrimination case she was involved in last year, though the fallout for the Democrat can't only be measured in dollars.

In November, Arizona Senate aide Talonya Adams, a Black woman, won a federal court case alleging she was terminated in 2015 after she complained about race and gender discrimination related to her pay and job duties. Hobbs at the time was the Senate Democratic leader and participated in the decision to fire Adams. Hobbs' response to the verdict was widely criticized as dismissive and dodgy.

In the month prior to the verdict, Hobbs raised about $207,300, records show. In the month following it, and up until Hobbs issued an apology for what she called a "defensive" response, she raised $208,900, the records show.

Still, Hobbs already has spent half of her campaign treasury, trailing behind Gaynor and Taylor Robson when it comes to money on hand to spend. Hobbs has not put any of her own money into her campaign, and a spokeswoman didn't directly respond to a question about the path forward for the campaign.

"The highest-ranking Democrat to hold statewide office, Katie is already a battle-tested leader who will represent all Arizonans by focusing on creating jobs, making sure Arizonans have the resources to recover from this pandemic, and building a more inclusive and accountable state," Hobbs' campaign spokeswoman Jennah Rivera said.

Reach reporter Stacey Barchenger at stacey.barchenger@arizonarepublic.com or 480-416-5669. Follow her on Twitter @sbarchenger.