Cash-Free Candidates: Some Win Primaries With Less Than $5,000

By Mike Woodel
McClatchy Washington Bureau

WWR Article Summary (tl;dr) According to data from the “Center for Responsive Politics”, first-time candidates had to spend $1.5 million to win a seat in the House during the 2016 election cycle. There are however a few candidates who are making their mark with far less in the bank.


At first glance, one might think Cristina McNeil a scofflaw.

Congressional candidates must file reports with the Federal Election Commission after their campaigns raise or spend $5,000. McNeil, who won the Democratic primary in Idaho’s 1st Congressional District on May 15, has filed no such reports.

Her spending came in under the threshold, so she didn’t have to.

“I really think it’s interesting,” McNeil, who sells real estate, says with a laugh. “It really was interesting.”

This is the counterpoint to all the discussion of the skyrocketing cost of running for office: Improbably enough, a handful of candidates have advanced to the general election while raising and spending relatively infinitesimal sums.

As experts note, victory in a primary does not guarantee the same after a general election campaign, which almost always requires far more resources. But making it onto the November ballot in a federal race is a goal that most successful candidates spend far more trying to attain.

The 2018 election cycle marks McNeil’s first bid for Congress. On such a slim budget, she estimates that she raised and spent about $2,000, her campaign thus far has relied on robocalls, emails, social media and Spanish-language radio to attract voters. With no paid staff, volunteers are lifeblood.

“This is a people’s campaign, if not a money-based campaign,” says Nick Tinker, McNeil’s campaign manager. “It’s so important to have the right message and the right candidate. Money can help, but money doesn’t get you there.”

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