John Koster’s spending shifts into high gear

Republican John Koster is the one candidate who doesn’t need to sweat much in the 1st Congressional District primary, yet he is spending money as if he is.

Results of every poll made public thus far — including another Wednesday — show Koster leading the seven-person race by a double-digit margin as ballots are sent out this week.

Even the five Democrats in the contest presume Koster, the only member of the Grand Old Party running, will easily garner one of the two top spots in the Aug. 7 primary.

Yet the balance sheet of Koster’s campaign doesn’t reflect that of a front-running candidate stocking up for what will be a fierce fall election.

On July 1, after more than a year in the hunt for a congressional seat, he had a nick under $116,000 in the bank, according to federal campaign finance reports released Sunday.

Overall, he’s raised in the neighborhood of $450,000, including a small personal loan, and spent roughly $334,000.

So it’s clear Koster can bring in money. What’s caught the eye of those watching this race is how fast it is going out.

In the three-month period ending June 30, Team Koster spent nearly every dollar it collected. His federal report shows $115,120 in contributions and $102,983 or expenditures in those months.

He is burning through dough at a faster rate than in his 2010 campaign against U.S. Rep. Rick Larsen, D-Wash. At this juncture two years ago, he had nearly $212,000 in the bank.

What’s the explanation?

Koster offered an answer Tuesday which shouldn’t surprise anyone: Congressional campaigns are not cheap and they’ve been at it for more than a year.

“We have to finish well in the primary,” he said.

Thumbing through the federal reports, a small chunk of the money is going to build the operation in a district that’s really large; it stretches south from the Canadian border to Kirkland. He’s renting two offices and buying lots of gas to get around.

A bigger chunk has gone to pay staff, consultants and professional fundraisers.

For example, campaign manager Larry Stickney earns around $6,000 a month. Roughly $17,000 went to one fundraising firm in this last quarter. And Allied Communication Strategies, run by former Building Industry Association of Washington leader Tom McCabe, pulled in $10,000 early in the year and now gets a cut on what is spent on ads that will soon run on cable television stations.

Democrats figure the National Republican Congressional Committee will pipe plenty of money to Koster’s campaign after Aug. 7. They also expect super-sized political action committees will independently spend handsomely to promote him and tear down the Democratic candidate.

Maybe. Nothing’s been pledged or promised.

Two years ago, Koster stood on the brink of victory against Larsen but the national Republicans didn’t cut him a check to try to seal the deal. Koster ran out of money when he needed it most for a final blitz of ads and get-out-the-vote effort.

“I’m confident they’ll get in,” Koster said when asked about 2012. Then he rephrased his thought. “I’m cautiously optimistic.”

GOP leaders are looking at what moves to make on a national political chessboard. An open seat is enticing though not a slam dunk.

If they get involved, the size of the investment will probably depend on which Democrat is on the ballot. Darcy Burner, who’s leading all Democrats in the polls, is not raising prolific amounts of money so far. Republicans may calculate a smaller investment could pay off.

On the other hand, if Suzan DelBene makes it through the primary, the GOP might sit it out again. She can write million-dollar checks to her campaign, and the Republican groups may not want to try to match her when other seats can be won at a lower cost.

Koster won’t be dragged into a guessing game. He’s ahead today and expects to be there when the primary ends.

He’s not sweating it.

Political reporter Jerry Cornfield’s blog, The Petri Dish, is at www.heraldnet.com. Contact him at 360-352-8623 or jcornfield@heraldnet.com.

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