Tacoma trial lawyer turned 27th Legislative District Senatorial candidate Jack Connelly has become the million-dollar man in his effort to unseat six-term state Rep. Jeannie Darneille, who is seeking to shift from the House of Representatives to the Senate. Both candidates are Democrats and moved on to the general election under the state’s “top two” primary system. Connelly has spent more than $1 million on his campaign, which is largely self-financed, making it the most expensive legislative race in state history. Only about a quarter of the Connelly campaign is being financed through donations, with the rest coming from his own pocket. While critics claim he is “buying the election” by spending his own money, he defends not only the practice but the amount.
“I don’t think that is what I am doing, and I don’t think that’s possible,” he said, noting that voters are smarter than simply being able to be “bought” with campaign ads. “We went into this knowing that we were going to have to spend a lot of money. Also, I don’t want to be beholden to special interests. That was very important to me. I believe that happens, and I don’t have to because I self financed.” Although Darneille isn’t technically an incumbent in the position since this is her first Senate race, she has served the district of North Tacoma for 12 years as a representative, so the ballpark of six times is largely valid. Darneille’s campaign records show costs of $233,375. She did not contribute any of that herself. Advisors generally give the figure of a political newcomer, like Connelly, having to spend about six times what an incumbent does to battle the name recognition of a sitting lawmaker. “Fortunately, that has not been the case,” Connelly said. “When we started this campaign, we said we were ‘all in.’ We are committed to this race. We are still ‘all in.’ In my job (as a trial attorney), it is my job to win. My job now is to offer voters a choice. We need change in Olympia, and we need change in the district.”
The position has been held for many years by Senator Debbie Regala. When she announced she would not seek another term, Connelly threw his hat in the ring. Then Darneille announced she would run. There were no Republican or independent candidates in the primary race. In her prior campaigns for the House of Representatives, Darneille has typically spent about $27,000. She knew she would need much more to run against a wealthy opponent such as Connelly. She initially expected she would need to raise between $200,000 and $250,000 and that Connelly would spend about $500,000. “At that time, nothing in the world indicated anyone would spend $1 million in the race,” she remarked. Public Disclosure Commission records show that the previous top spender on a state race was the unsuccessful bid by Republican Gregg Bennett for the 48th District Senate seat against Democrat Rodney Tom. That tab was $579,055 in 2010. Bennett spent $100,000 of his own money then. Connelly has personally spent almost 10 times that.
This level of spending has attracted attention. Darneille has heard feedback while interacting with voters. Some have told her they wish they had that amount of money to send their children to college. A social worker told her 50 homeless families could be housed for a year for $500,000. Connelly spent some of his money on yard signs and mailing campaign material to voters. Some have been positive, with information about his family and involvement in the community. Others have portrayed Darneille as being soft on crime, accusing her of supporting reductions in sentencing and supervision of violent felons and sex offenders. He has also run television commercials with family members of violent crime victims with a similar theme. Darneille did a talk radio interview to counter the accusations and sent out mailers touting her accomplishments, including one with information from a KING 5 Television report from June about how she helped police catch two men who burglarized a neighbor’s home. She has also sent out “robo calls” to voters in response to Connelly’s accusations.
Television ads for races in this district are not common, although Darneille said State Representative Laurie Jinkins ran one in 2010. Darneille decided to run TV ads for this race. Darneille expected the race might be rough and tumble. “Mister Connelly is an accomplished attorney. He is a forceful speaker in the courtroom. I expected this would test my skills,” she remarked. Darneille said her opponent has resorted to “inflammatory and misleading” rhetoric that she considers to be attacks on her personally and professionally. “It is a much darker campaign that what I have ever experienced.” While many politicos consider the 27th district one of the most liberal districts in the state, Connelly contends that more people define themselves as “independent” than members of either major political party. “I think he is focusing his attention on undecided voters,” Darneille said. “Or Republican voters who do not have an obvious choice in this race.”
She does not consider Connelly to be an active member of the Democratic Party, although she noted he has donated money to campaigns of many local Democrats over the years. He also ran as a Democrat against Republican Mike Carrell for a house race in the 28th District. In contrast, Darneille said she spent 14 years as a Democratic precinct officer. During a meeting of 27th District precinct officers earlier this year, a choice was made on which candidate to endorse. Darneille said Connelly did not get a single nomination. Darneille said her biggest concern about the amount of money Connelly is spending is that he is not offering any ideas of his own. “All of these ads are really a smokescreen. With a million dollars, you can buy a lot of smoke.”