Cincinnati's top Democratic donors emptied their pockets in 2016 to support Hillary Clinton, a citywide preschool levy and Hamilton County Commissioner Denise Driehaus.
Now as a fresh crop of local candidates begins to schedule fundraisers ahead of the November election, some are worried about “donor fatigue” that could make it harder to get campaign cash in 2017.
“2016 was incredibly expensive,” said Kevin Tighe, founder of Cincinnati-based Stratis Campaigns. “We’re going to have a lot of donor fatigue in 2017 – we’re seeing that a lot already.”
With dozens of Democrats expected to run for a spot on City Council, and two Democrats challenging incumbent Mayor John Cranley in a primary race, there will be intense competition for donor dollars.
That means lesser-known council candidates will have to work twice as hard to find first-time donors and persuade them to open their wallets.
New council candidates may have to rely on their own personal circle of friends and family to kick-start fundraising.
First-time City Council candidate Tamaya Dennard will host house parties around Cincinnati in search of smaller donations and rely on her inner network to spread the word on her campaign, said Tighe, who is an adviser.
“There’s no special list where you can call everybody and they’ll give you money,” Tighe said. “(Dennard) is going to have multiple events a week, house parties – having her friends not giving 1,000 bucks at a time, but 100 bucks.”
Democrat Michelle Dillingham finished 12th in the 2013 City Council race and is making her second attempt at winning a council seat this year.
“Not too long ago, people only had to raise maybe two or three thousand dollars to run for City Council. With the four-year term I feel like the ante has gone up,” said Dillingham, a career social worker and CEO at Community Shares of Greater Cincinnati, a fundraising organization for nonprofits. She says she’s raised $8,000 so far.
Some well-known candidates and incumbents, however, have already raised impressive war chests in very short time frames.
At the top of the Democratic fundraising pack is City Councilman P.G. Sittenfeld, who is running for his third term.
Sittenfeld, who is known as a prolific fundraiser, brought in $73,584 during the last seven weeks of 2016.
Not far behind is Democratic hopeful Greg Landsman, who hopes to win a seat on City Council after barely losing his first bid in 2013.
Landsman raised $69,635 mostly from donations made in the last few weeks of 2016.
“I’d say the support we’ve received in what was just a few short weeks has been incredible and an indicator that people are looking for leaders to bring people together and get results,” Landsman said.
Landsman’s name is much more recognized after he led the successful Preschool Promise levy to provide funding for near universal preschool and Cincinnati Public Schools this fall.
His work on the levy won him the support, and donations, from many big names in the business community such as Tom Williams, president of North American Properties and Michael Fisher, president and CEO of Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center, as well as prominent Republicans such as Wym Portman, brother to U.S. Sen. Rob Portman.
As of Jan. 31, Landsman said he’s raised $100,000 and hopes to raise $250,000 by the November election.
And, while Republican Amy Murray’s seat has become a target for Democrats, she’s in an enviable spot when it comes to raising money for her campaign. She had $120,000 in her war chest as of two weeks ago, with a goal to raise $300,000.
So far, Murray and newcomer Jeffrey Pastor are the only Republicans to jump in the race. With no other countywide races this fall, Murray will get a lot of the GOP’s attention – and cash.
“Sometimes it’s in the best interest of the party to have more candidates, but it may be in the best interest of the candidate to be the only focused race,” said Hamilton County Republican chairman Alex Triantafilou.
On the other end of the fundraising spectrum is community organizer Ozie Davis, who just last month launched his bid for a council seat. He had $1,050 on hand at the close of 2016.
But that may not matter, said Tim Burke, the Hamilton County Democratic chairman.
Some candidates have won a council seat with very little fundraising cash, while others, like Landsman, have narrowly lost despite raising $240,000 in 2013.
In past elections, African American candidates such Wendell Young, Cecil Thomas and Tyrone Yates have shown that they didn’t need to raise a lot of money in order to win seats on City Council, Burke said.
“They can do well without raising the kinds of money that other candidates do,” Burke said. “But you’ve got to have a name and supporters. You can’t be unknown and be expected to succeed without having enough money to build name recognition.”
WCPO Contributor Steve Morrison contributed to this story.