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Arkansas’ largest campaign donors include Stephens, Waltons and Oaklawn’s Cella

by Lisa Hammersly | May 12, 2022 at 4:36 a.m.
From left, investment banker Warren Stephens; Louis Cella, president of Oaklawn Racing; and Jim Walton, Walmart heir and businessman, are shown in this undated combination photo. (Arkansas Democrat-Gazette file photos)

On the eve of the May 24 primaries, the largest contributors to Arkansas' 2022 campaigns include familiar names such as investment banker Warren Stephens and the Arkansas Realtors Association, plus a bounty of out-of-state dollars.

Arkansas' top individual contributors are Stephens and Oaklawn Racing's president, Louis Cella, according to campaign finance disclosures filed with the Arkansas secretary of state's office. Each has disbursed more than $50,000 among favored 2022 candidates, records show.

Biggest contributors so far among political action committees (PACs), which represent special interests, include the Realtors association, at almost $183,000, and nursing home owners' Arkansas Health Care Association, about $125,000.

Then there are the out-of-staters, most without apparent Arkansas ties but who have provided more than $7 million to the campaign of one candidate, Republican gubernatorial hopeful and former Trump White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders.

Among donors' addresses: Garden City, N.Y.; Beverly Hills, Calif.; Odessa, Texas; Milton, Wis.

Campaign contributions from these and hundreds of other places outside Arkansas make up about 59% of Sanders' campaign contribution records that list donor names and addresses, according to the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette's analysis of campaign finance data. Name and address information is not required for donations under $50.

Total campaign contributions to Sanders' campaign stand at $14.3 million, according to campaign finance records from Jan. 1, 2021, through March 31, the most recent filings available.

Recent gubernatorial candidates who broke records -- Democrat Mike Ross in 2014 and Republican Gov. Asa Hutchinson in 2018 -- collected $6.4 million and $5.9 million, respectively.

"I'm thankful for the record-breaking support I have received across every county in our state and every state in our nation," Sanders said through a campaign spokesman.

Some state candidates, especially those from smaller legislative districts, have found 2022 election fundraising to contain challenges, said Rep. David Ray, R-Maumelle, campaign manager for Lt. Gov. Tim Griffin's race for attorney general.

With covid-19 restrictions last year, "there were fewer in-person gatherings, such as events held in peoples' homes. Fortunately, a lot of that has subsided and in-person gatherings are pretty much back to normal at this point," he said.

Economic pressures are apparent in some cases, he said. "I'm sure there are certainly donors who may normally give but who are feeling economic uncertainty right now and giving less, or not contributing this cycle."

The second-highest fundraiser among all state candidates, Griffin's campaign has raised $2.3 million for his attorney general race, campaign finance records show.

Ray defines his candidate's fundraising as a success, coming "from every corner of the state and that's a reflection that he is a really strong candidate." About 1% of Griffin's campaign contributions are from outside Arkansas, records show.

Griffin has one opponent in the Republican Primary for attorney general. Leon Jones Jr. of Little Rock reports raising $73,522 in campaign contributions. Democrat Jesse Gibson is the lone opponent for the November General Election, reporting $195,050.

The state's third-largest campaign fundraiser and the leading Democrat is Chris Jones of Little Rock, former executive director of the Arkansas Regional Innovation Hub.

His campaign reports $1.7 million in contributions, with about 57% of those that are itemized by address coming from out-of-state, according to secretary of state records.

Jones communications director Clint Schaff says his campaign isn't surprised that Sanders has raised a lot of out-of-state money with a focus on "culture-war issues made up to stir national conversation."

He says Jones' focus on providing preschools, broadband and jobs in Arkansas has "inspired people across the country."

Jones faces four opponents in the Democratic primary, Anthony Bland ($6,528 total in campaign contributions), Jay Martin ($1,520), James Russell ($7,051) and Supha Xayprasith-Mays ($25,925).

It's difficult to overstate the size of Sanders' campaign contributions in Arkansas' 2022 election.

The Sanders campaign's $14.3 million accounts for more than $2 of every $5 raised by all candidates for state executive, legislative and judicial offices.

With her work in the Trump White House and as the daughter of former Arkansas Gov. and former presidential candidate Mike Huckabee, Sanders' name recognition attracted out-of-state, as well as in-state, contributors, experts say.

Because important policy is made at the state level, national contributions to state races are "a trend that was developing well before the current election cycle, and Sarah has certainly benefited from it far more than other candidates seeking state office" in Arkansas, said Ouachita Baptist University emeritus political science Prof. Hal Bass, who once taught Sanders.

Sanders has one opponent in the Republican gubernatorial primary, podcaster Doc Washburn. His campaign reports raising $38,355, according to secretary of state records.

BIG GIVERS

Arkansas' third-largest individual donor is Walmart heir and businessman Jim Walton, at $44,100, according to campaign contribution data analyzed by the Democrat-Gazette.

Others include: Shreveport nursing home owner John Ponthie, $22,700; Houston businessman Thomas Friedkin, $21,800; El Dorado oil and timber businessman Madison Murphy, $21,400; and Witt Stephens of Little Rock, CEO of The Stephens Group, $21,200. Most have been large donors in Arkansas elections in the past.

Campaign finance reports also show big donors often team with family members and business associates to multiply contributions to a candidate beyond Arkansas' legal maximum for one donor. This year's max is $2,900 per-candidate, per-election, which often translates into one large donor giving $5,800 toward a candidate's party primary and general election.

One example is Jim Walton's and wife Lynne's giving to Republican Doyle Webb's run for lieutenant governor.

In early November, Lynne Walton sent two donations of $2,900, or $5,800 total, to Webb's campaign, records show. Jim Walton followed late that month with $5,800 more.

Big donors also can contribute to political action committees and political parties that are likely to send still more money to the campaigns of their preferred candidates.

PACs, often built around shared business interests or political convictions, usually donate larger amounts to campaigns overall than even the most generous individuals.

Campaign finance records show other large PAC donors in Arkansas 2022 elections so far, behind the Realtors and nursing home groups, include:

• DBH Management Consultants of Morrilton, $98,625 from seven DBH PACs.

• Nine PACs connected with the Fayetteville group Conduit for Action, $88,450.

• Action Committee for Rural Electrification of Little Rock, $78,000.

• Arkansas Dental Political Action Committee of Little Rock, $51,300.

• Arkansas Trucking Association Political Action Committee of Little Rock, $50,300.

Campaign contributions from PACs and individual donors alike can have greater impact on less costly legislative races, particularly in rural Arkansas, experts say.

Campaign watchers estimate funding a state House seat race in this state requires about $50,000, a state Senate seat $150,000. Heavily contested races cost more. One PAC or individual big donor's contribution carries more heft in these races, compared to statewide campaigns.

One example is the House District 94 campaign of Rep. Jeff Wardlaw, R-Hermitage, which has raised $67,131 so far. Of that, $8,500, or about 13%, has come from four DBH Management Consultants PACs, according to campaign finance records.

Wardlaw faces no Republican Primary opponent. Two candidates have filed to face him in the Democratic Primary in November: Curley Jackson, $0 in contributions, and Andrew Pritt, $10,650.

Big donors "are not a ubiquitous group of people but have differing motivations," said University of Arkansas, Fayetteville political science Assistant Professor Karen Sebold.

Some seek access to soon-to-be elected officials to support beliefs they think are important, she and other experts say. Another motivation is investing in a candidate they believe may rise higher in politics.

Responses from the state's two biggest PAC donors indicate they look for candidates friendly to their interests, particularly regarding government regulation of their industries.

The executive director of the nursing home group, Arkansas Health Care Association, wrote that because long-term-care facilities are highly regulated, they have "issues of concern at the legislature at all times, and that has been the case for decades. Because of this, industry members feel a need to exercise their constitutional right to engage in our electoral process."

The Health Care Association chooses to support candidates the same way other industries and voters themselves do, executive director Rachel Bunch wrote. It's based on a candidate's "position on issues of importance, understanding of the healthcare industry, its funding and regulation, and willingness to listen, among other things."

The Arkansas Realtors Association looks for candidates "who are business friendly, and supportive of individual property rights," the association's communications director Megan Anthony wrote.

The group also backs candidates who "are committed to strong and fair regulation to promote a healthy housing market and provide protection for homebuyers and sellers."

The biggest individual donor so far to state races, Stephens Inc. chairman and CEO Warren Stephens, declined to talk to the newspaper about his campaign contributions. A spokesman for Oaklawn's Cella did not respond to information requests.

Ouachita Baptist's Bass said political science textbooks generally cite economic, social and ideological motivations behind sizable campaign donors.

Economic incentives that include attracting governmental favors "used to be more common before civil service reform," Bass said.

Social incentives include the satisfaction a donor might feel "rubbing shoulders with others at fundraising events," or aspirations for unpaid appointments to prestigious boards and commissions.

Ideological incentives refer to a donor's desire to elect like-minded candidates, who will transform a shared issue into public policy.

"In these polarized times, ideological incentives appear to be on the rise in accounting for donations," Bass said in an email.

CARRYOVER

Campaign contributions for the 2022 Arkansas elections won't wind down until at least a month after the Nov. 8 general election. Candidates who have campaign debts to repay get more time to try to catch up.

Those with leftover campaign funds have several options, including carrying over money for future campaigns, said UA Fayetteville's Sebold.

Meantime, Sanders' campaign fundraising already has redefined the race for the state's highest political office, political experts say.

Her campaign collected $9.1 million by October 2021, four months before filing officially began.

The next month, Attorney General Leslie Rutledge, a Republican who had announced for the governor's race more than a year earlier, exited to run for lieutenant governor.

Griffin left the governor's race long before Rutledge. In February 2021, just weeks after Sanders announced her gubernatorial plans, he said he would instead run for Rutledge's current attorney general job.

The Sanders campaign's "stacks of cash were a driver for sure," said U A political science professor Janine Parry. "Even well-known figures in the state had to concede that her candidacy was a juggernaut out of the gate."

Those donations could also indicate a base of support for Sanders in future races.

"She's been talked about as a presidential candidate, maybe not next cycle, but the next. And then there are some who say it could happen next cycle," Sebold said.

CORRECTION: Under Ark. Code Ann. 7-6-203 (g) (1), campaign contributions raised by a candidate in a state race cannot be carried over to directly fund a federal election race. An earlier version of this story didn’t fully describe the limitations placed on how state candidates can use excess campaign contributions.


  photo  Candidates report millions, thousands in donations
 
 


  photo  Top donors pump money into state races
 
 


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