Latest mayoral campaign figures favor Columbia’s incumbent in Tuesday’s vote

cleblanc@thestate.comOctober 30, 2013 

  • Campaign dollars Incumbent Steve Benjamin has reported raising almost nine times as much money as his rival in Columbia’s mayoral campaign. Voters will decide Tuesday between re-electing Benjamin or promoting Councilman Moe Baddourah to the mayor’s seat. Here’s an overview of their war chests.

    Benjamin: Raised $443,562 through Oct. 21; spent $289,066.

    Baddourah: Raised $51,900; spent $27,500 *

    *Baddourah’s figures are estimates from his campaign because he has missed the state’s pre-election disclosure deadline.

    SOURCE: Oct. 21, 2013 State Ethics Commission disclosure report.

— By the numbers knowable to voters, Mayor Steve Benjamin is poised to stroll into a second term.

His fundraising has eclipsed the challenger, Councilman Moe Baddourah.

Benjamin’s campaign organization is, well, organized.

Columbia’s voter base continues to lean to his benefit.

A new but small, private poll shows Benjamin with a 39-point edge within a week of the Nov. 5 election, though nearly 30 percent of the 370 respondents in a Crantford Research telephone survey said they’re undecided.

Baddourah’s campaign disputes the Crantford poll and dismisses it as flawed and released to help the incumbent.

Benjamin has closed in on raising $500,000 for his re-election campaign and has spent about 35 percent of his sizable contributions, according to his most recent campaign disclosure form.

As of Oct. 21, Benjamin reported to the State Ethics Commission that his donations had reached $443,562 – $133,808 of it since summer. The figures are from the final report candidates must file before Election Day.

Benjamin had spent $289,066 before launching expensive television ads, which his media adviser, Adam Fogle, said are to start airing Thursday.

Baddourah had not filed his now-overdue disclosure form as of Wednesday. But his campaign said he has raised $51,900 for this election and has spent 53 percent of it, or $27,500.

Donors and dollars

Benjamin’s disclosure report shows that 27 percent of his 354 contributions since June 6 are from donors outside of metropolitan Columbia. Benjamin received 95 out-of-town contributions, which amount to 27 percent of his total, The State newspaper’s examination of the report shows.

Contributors from as far away as Miami, New Orleans, Memphis, Washington, Philadelphia, Atlanta, Charlottesville, Va., Birmingham, Ala., Metuchen, N.J., and Deerfield, Ill., gave money to Benjamin.

One-third of the out-of-town donors contributed the $1,000 allowable maximum, the report shows.

Of the $59,348 the campaign has spent since July 8, about $17,200 went to two of Benjamin’s political consulting firms: Richard Quinn & Associates and BANCO/Bannister, both longtime campaign strategists that also worked on Benjamin’s 2010 race.

Cathy Hazelwood, the attorney for the ethics commission, said the deadline to file the most recent report was Oct. 26, including a five-day grace period that candidates may use.

“They’re out of grace,” said Hazelwood of Baddourah’s campaign. “They’re getting the $100 letter.” Fines escalate the longer campaigns fail to file after notice. It can grow to $100 per day.

Baddourah campaign director RJ Shealy said he is in the process of filing the overdue report.

Baddourah’s July disclosure form, the most recent on file, showed he had raised $18,747 and spent $12,119. He listed six $1,000 contributions, two of which are from his restaurant, Moe’s Grapevine, and Andy’s Deli, owned by his uncle.

All but $1,200 of the expenditures were to Shealy Communications.

Changing, growing voter base

Columbia has about 74,120 voters eligible to cast ballots in next week’s election. That’s up by about 12,230 new voters since the election season of 2008, according to voter records supplied this week by the State Election Commission.

Registration rolls show about 7,200 more African-Americans have registered to vote in Columbia during the past five years.

The white voter population grew by 4,170 during the same period, the data show. That means blacks comprise 60 percent of newer voters while newly registered whites grew by 34 percent.

Overall, however, white voters remain the majority at 50.5 percent, while African-Americans make up about 46 percent, according to state elections office figures. Those proportions in 2008 were 54 percent white voters and 43.5 percent black voters.

Turnout – always the biggest factor in election results – has been up and down.

The first race in 2010 by the 43-year-old attorney drew 27 percent of voters to the initial balloting and 31 percent to the runoff Benjamin won, according to city records.

However, turnout plummeted to about 12 percent in last spring’s City Council races. That election for three seats did not pit any incumbent against a challenger because two retired. A third had minimal opposition.

A low turnout Tuesday might help Baddourah.

“This is going to be a low-turnout election,” Shealy said. “My guy has a built-in 20 percent just for not being Benjamin.”

Polling numbers questioned

The Crantford poll showed Benjamin with 55 percent of the vote; Baddourah with 16 percent. The undecideds total 29 percent of those reached by phone on Monday.

Shealy said the poll by Carey Crantford conflicts with Baddourah’s tracking – though Shealy declined to release the candidate’s numbers.

“That was just a ridiculously flawed poll,” Shealy said of the poll by Crantford, who usually works for Democrats. Benjamin has run as a Democrat in a statewide election and once was party chairman in Richland County.

“I’ve never seen a poll that puts Benjamin over 50 percent,” Baddourah’s strategist said. He notes that the Crantford poll of “active” voters is less accurate than polls of “likely” voters.

“It sampled the most unlikely voters,” Shealy said.

Benjamin’s team also would not disclose his latest poll.

But Richard Quinn said the incumbent’s campaign consistently has found the support to be between 55 percent and 60 percent. “We’ll take 55,” Quinn said.

2010 mayoral race

Benjamin won the mayor’s seat by about 101/2 percentage points, or a 2,000-vote margin in a runoff against former City Councilman Kirkman Finlay III.

The pair faced each other on April 20, 2010 after leading a field of seven candidates to replace longtime mayor Bob Coble, who decided not to run after 20 years in office.

Benjamin won with strong support from African-American voters. White voters also endorsed him and his theme of “one Columbia.”

In the nearly all-black Greenview precinct, for example, Benjamin received 695 votes compared with Finlay’s six. Turnout in Greenview reached 40 percent. In Ward 8, which votes near Benedict College, Benjamin got 435 votes to Finlay’s four. The turnout there was 171/2 percent.

Benjamin also did well in some traditionally white precincts such as Ward 11 in the Rosewood neighborhood. But he lost large precincts such as Pennington, Woodlands and Meadowfield, all located in more conservative neighborhoods in southeastern Columbia. There, he received less than half of Finlay’s tallies.

This is Baddourah’s first citywide race. The 50-year-old restaurant owner who grew up in Beirut, Lebanon, won the District 3 seat in an April 2012 runoff by a comfortable margin. Turnout was about 17 percent. District 3 is comprised of many of the city’s well-heeled neighborhoods, including those around the University of South Carolina and much of the Five Points entertainment district.

If defeated Tuesday, Baddourah has about half of his council term to serve. He, Benjamin and the rest of council members are losing six months of their current terms because council moved elections from April to November.

Baddourah ran a shoe leather campaign for the District 3 seat as he has in the mayoral campaign. Baddorah said he has knocked on more than 10,000 doors of likely voters across Columbia.

Reach LeBlanc at (803) 771-8664.

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