TAMPA — Early in the planning stages for his campaign to win another four years on the Hillsborough County Commission, Al Higginbotham told his campaign consultant how much money he thought he needed to win: $300,000 to $350,000.
Higginbotham knew switching from eastern Hillsborough's District 4, where he is prevented by term limits from running again, to countywide District 7 would require a lot of cash.
In a district race, candidates can meet voters by going door-to-door. But running countywide in Hillsborough — with 750,000 registered voters spread over 1,000 square miles — requires mail and television ads.
"I have no illusions about the difficulties of running countywide," Higginbotham said. "That's one of the reasons we focused early on raising money."
With a little more than six weeks to go before the Aug. 26 primary, and four months before the Nov. 4 general election, Higginbotham is right where he wanted to be. He has raised $205,771, including in-kind contributions, according to his most recent campaign finance report.
His opponents? They've either got a lot of fundraising to do, or are hoping for a miraculous break in a trend, according to a Tampa Bay Times analysis of spending in countywide commission races since 2002.
Since 2002, the winning candidate for a countywide seat has spent an average of $221,880. This covers 10 races in the three countywide districts — 5, 6 and 7. It does not include Commissioner Ken Hagan's automatic win this year in District 5, as he didn't draw an opponent — likely because he piled up a war chest of $312,956 — and didn't have to campaign.
Higginbotham's five opponents, combined, have raised $166,036. Some say they plan to step up their fundraising, others question they need that much money to win.
"Dreams don't cost money," said Republican Robin Lester, managing partner of Florida Growth Partners consulting firm. Lester has raised $23,333 and spent nearly all of it.
"I'm going to try to buck the trend," she said. "Something's gone horribly wrong when you have to raise that kind of money for a local county seat."
Republican Don Kruse doesn't believe in fundraising. Kruse, CEO of the Beauty and Health Institute, is self-funding his race. He has given himself $5,777 so far, a symbolic amount, he explained, because he's running in District 7. Asked why he didn't give himself $7,777 instead, Kruse said he hadn't thought of that.
If it takes $100,000 to win, Kruse said, he has it. Kruse has run twice for commission and lost, and pointed out he can re-use leftover campaign signs and literature. He thinks the two losses give him an advantage in name recognition.
"Some people have come up to me and actually thought I won last time," Kruse said.
Republican Tim Schock does believe in fundraising, but his campaign has primarily been self-funded so far. Schock, president and founder of Lightning Capital Consulting firm, has raised $51,600, but $47,600 of it is his money. He expects to raise more.
"My campaign, I believe, is really in a prime position to change the scope of this race," Schock said.
On the Democratic side, Mark Nash had raised $49,507 through Friday, while Pat Kemp had $35,818.
Kemp hopes to raise more than $100,000 eventually, she said, and thinks the statewide medical marijuana ballot question and the gubernatorial race will drive Democratic turnout this fall.
"While money is important, there's more than money to elections," said Kemp, a lawyer and former county Democratic Party leader.
Nash also expects to keep raising cash, but thinks he can compete even if he's significantly outspent.
"I don't think money is the definite answer here," said Nash, a former aide to Democratic Commissioner Kevin Beckner. "It's the message and the messenger."
To get the message out countywide, though, money is vital, according to Beckner, Nash's former boss.
Beckner's first win, in 2008, can serve as inspiration for newcomers trying to beat a sitting commissioner in a countywide race. Beckner, a financial planner who had never run for office before, defeated Republican Brian Blair. While Beckner was outspent — $250,000 to $203,000 — he still raised a lot of money.
"In Hillsborough, the number of voters we're trying to persuade is larger than some states," said Beckner, who thinks you need about $300,000 to run a good countywide campaign.
When told one candidate seeking to join him on the commission didn't plan to try to raise money, Beckner laughed.
"If you're not willing to raise money, especially in a countywide race . . . you might as well not run," Beckner said. "Don't waste other people's time, you're living on a whole different planet."
Will Hobson can be reached at (813) 226-3400 or [email protected] Follow @TheWillHobson.