Updated Monday, November 19, 2012 at 11:53 AM
If you ever feel depressed about our political system, dismayed by the growing influence of money, and PACs and Super PACs, remember the 27th District state Senate race of 2012.
Tacoma trial lawyer Jack Connelly raised some $1.1 million for that just-concluded race — including $988,383 of his own money — and got 42.7 percent of the vote, according to the latest tally.
In other words, he raised $46.38 for each of the roughly 23,000 votes he received. And he lost — to longtime state Rep. Jeannie Darneille, a fellow Democrat.
"Doesn't that make you feel a little better about the system?" said former state Rep. Lynn Kessler, a Hoquiam Democrat who served as House majority leader before retiring in 2010. "Apparently, we aren't as snowed by dollar signs as we think."
Connelly's record spending highlighted a Washington legislative electoral season that included $31 million in fundraising and independent expenditures — about $2.5 million more than in 2010 and nearly twice as much as in 2002.
The cash infusion has been rising, in part because of growing independent efforts, which are unlimited. Direct donations are limited to $1,800 — $900 for the primary and $900 for the general election — and must be reported to the state Public Disclosure Commission. But money in politics remains a key concern, even as members of the Legislature are paid just $42,106 annually.
No silver bullet
This year, the money surely swayed several contests, but it proved far from a silver bullet: Of the 12 top fundraisers of 2012, six either decisively lost or are trailing in races likely headed for a recount.
One of them, Renton dentist Bobby Virk, didn't even make it out of the August primary. The Democrat raised $294,852 and got 3,040 votes in a five-way state House contest in the 11th District — $97 per vote. Teacher Steve Bergquist, also a Democrat, won the general election after raising $68,552.
Virk and others on the big-money list, including Connelly, defended their fundraising, although some said they were embarrassed by it.
Bud Sizemore, a former Covington City Council member, said he needed every dollar of his $335,509 in fundraising and $355,209 in independent support to compete with incumbent state Rep. Mark Hargrove, R-Covington, in the 47 Legislative District. Hargrove raised just $123,692 and benefited from $68,452 in independent expenditures.
"This election had so many issues on the ballot — a presidential race and so many ballot measures — so being able to connect with voters and get your message out becomes incredibly expensive," said Sizemore, who was trailing Hargrove by 364 votes in the latest tally.
But asked if he was concerned about the race's heavy spending, Sizemore said "yes."
"But I don't have the solution," he said.
State Sen. Mary Margaret Haugen, D-Camano Island, called the spending in her re-election race "ridiculous" and "appalling."
Haugen raised the third most of any legislative candidate, $480,164, and she also got a $116,876 independent boost in a hard-fought campaign against state Rep. Barbara Bailey, R-Oak Harbor. But Bailey won, thanks in part to $362,178 in fundraising and $284,648 in independent expenditures.
"It really is unfortunate that it's gotten down to who can raise the money instead of who's the best candidate," Haugen said.
Not everybody is concerned about the increased spending, though.
Barry Sehlin, the vice chair of the Public Disclosure Commission, said it's very expensive for candidates to communicate with voters.
"The important thing is that contributors are identified," said Sehlin, a former Republican state representative who retired in 2004. "And we require that."
Besides, Sehlin noted, many big spenders lose.
Incumbency a factor
Indeed, incumbency is often more powerful than money, said Todd Donovan, a political-science professor at Western Washington University.
Money can sway independent voters, but it's unlikely to make a big difference in a district controlled by one party and represented by an incumbent, he said.
Kessler, the former majority leader, said she thinks the political system has reached a point where more spending is not going to be very effective.
"I think this year there was so much spending and so many ads that it got to be like white noise," she said. "It just doesn't mean anything after awhile. You get so many mailings and emails, just one after another after another. It's like, get out of here. I just want to see my email."
As for Connelly, the Tacoma lawyer who invested nearly $1 million and lost, he said the results taught him a lesson.
The money made a difference, he said, citing results of internal tracking polls throughout the race. His ads made voters know he was running, giving him a chance against his well-known opponent, six-term state Rep. Darneille.
"But by the end of the primary or the election in a district as small as this, people are fairly aware of the two candidates," Connelly said, "and so when they vote they have plenty to vote on."
In this case, many voted on the abortion issue, said Connelly, who unlike Darneille opposes abortion rights. That dynamic proved too much to overcome in a liberal district, he said.
"Can you 'buy the election?' " he mused. "I don't really think you can."
Brian M. Rosenthal: 206-464-3195 or firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter @brianmrosenthal.