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Originally published September 25, 2008 at 12:00 AM | Page modified September 25, 2008 at 12:04 AM

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First-time donors lavish millions on governor's race

This year's showdown between Dino Rossi and Christine Gregoire has attracted more than 36,000 new campaign contributors to the gubernatorial race. A Seattle Times analysis shows that two-thirds of Rossi's contributors are new this year and that more than half of Gregoire's donors didn't give before.

Seattle Times staff reporters

New donors to Gregoire-Rossi race

We calculated the number of new donors by comparing the current list of campaign contributors to those who gave in the 2004 race. The numbers, based on contributions as of Sept. 15, are estimates because common names, misspellings and other issues could produce false matches.

Dino Rossi

Number of new donors: 21,718, or 67 percent of reported donors

Total from new donors: $4,057,675 out of $7,623,449 raised

Average per new donor: $187

Christine Gregoire

Number of new donors: 14,579, or 54 percent of reported donors

Total from new donors: $4,108,373 out of $9,218,279 raised

Average per new donor: $282

Source: Seattle Times analysis of data provided by the state Public Disclosure Commission

Lauren Bivins didn't even consider giving money to Christine Gregoire or Dino Rossi in their 2004 battle for governor. Bivins, president of Harbor Marine in Everett, had never contributed to a campaign before.

But frustrated by the 2004 outcome, when Gregoire won the closest governor's race in state history on a recount, and driven by his concern about taxes on small business, Bivins didn't want to be a bystander this year. He's written three checks to Rossi totaling $800.

"I feel able to contribute, and I want to help carry the flag for our side," Bivins said. "I think more people on both sides are getting involved in the campaigns because they feel strongly about the election."

He's right. This year's Gregoire-Rossi showdown has attracted more than 36,000 new donors.

A Seattle Times analysis shows that 67 percent of Rossi's reported contributors are new this year; 54 percent of Gregoire's donors didn't give before. Together, the two campaigns have bagged more than $8 million from donors who didn't contribute in 2004.

That's a lot, says fundraising consultant Colby Underwood, who's working for three statewide Democratic candidates this year, but not for Gregoire. Doug Ellis, assistant director of the state Public Disclosure Commission, agrees.

"There's a perception that every vote counts," Ellis said. "People didn't think that before."

Underwood aims for getting 50 percent of a campaign's contributions from new donors. Any more is tough — and not usually cost-effective — because of the effort needed to prospect for new donors, educate them about a candidate and persuade them to invest. It's often more efficient to coax existing donors to give more, he said.

"Priority one is maximizing what existing donors give," he said.

But this year's race for governor — by far the most expensive in state history — is stirring strong emotions on both sides, Underwood said.

"There's an easy answer why: It's because of how close the race was in 2004," he said. "There's probably a feeling among high-level Republican donors that [Rossi] should have won, that the election was stolen. On the flip side, there are a lot of Democrats who felt the election was almost stolen from them and want to make sure [Gregoire] doesn't win by 200 votes but by 20,000. There's that kind of animosity. It's real visceral."

Internet campaigning, grass-roots excitement about Sen. Barack Obama's bid for the White House, and solicitations by interest groups such as labor unions are also fueling the new-donor phenomenon, said Ellis, who has worked at the watchdog agency since 1992.

"I think people are paying more attention and there's more fundraising outreach," he said.

Many donors are giving to the campaigns without even being asked. Tim Ahern, a data-center manager from Lake Forest Park, doesn't recall being solicited. Ahern, 58, gave $250 to Gregoire because, he said, "she's done a good job and every little bit probably helps her."

36,000 reasons for giving

And it seems all the donors have their own reason for giving.

Some, like Max Spalding, who has given $400 to Rossi, aren't passionate partisans. Spalding, who said he's an independent voter, contributed to Rossi because "he's the lesser of two evils." Owner of an auto-parts shop in Spokane Valley, Spalding, 71, said, "Our present governor is spending more than we have; if I can sway anything, I want to help."

Others like Denise Sweeden, 40, who gave $1,500 to Gregoire, hope a contribution gets them precious "face time" with a candidate. Sweeden, marketing director for an architectural and engineering firm in Kennewick, said she gave on behalf of her company, Meier Enterprises. Her concern is that Eastern Washington jobs are being lured to Idaho.

"My company feels it's really important that we have a voice," she said. Sweeden, a Democrat, said she hasn't decided whether she'll vote for Gregoire or Rossi.

Lisa Schafer, who makes cosmetics out of chocolates in Seattle, has given to both candidates. Schafer, 39, has contributed $3,200 to Rossi and $800 to Gregoire. She said she likes Republican positions on taxes and Democratic stances on the environment. Her husband, Craig, who owns Seattle's Hotel Andra, encouraged her to help both, she said.

"He likes to make friends with everybody. It's like saying 'good luck to both of you,' " Schafer said.

Many donors, though, cite familiar themes.

Rob Monster, a Sammamish venture capitalist, gave $2,500 to Rossi after hearing him speak at a fundraiser. "Entrepreneurs know how to adapt, and that's the mindset that Dino brings to the role. Dino also understands the enormous impact that entrepreneurship and free enterprise can have on the well-being of the state economy," said Monster, 41.

Michele Thomas, a Seattle tenants' rights activist, donated $100 to Gregoire because Rossi is backed by the state's largest landlord group. "Dino Rossi would be particularly bad news for tenants," said Thomas, 34, adding that she was impressed by Gregoire's work on children's issues and her speech endorsing Obama.

Many more small gifts

In addition to the 36,000 new donors, the two campaigns say they have thousands of other new contributors who aren't reported by name to the state because they've given $25 or less, the threshold for itemizing contributors.

Not surprisingly, both campaigns say the flood of new donors is a tribute to the candidates and their values and accomplishments.

Gregoire's spokesman, Aaron Toso, also noted that she fought a divisive Democratic primary battle in 2004 with King County Executive Ron Sims and that she "has unified her base" for this election. Gregoire also is benefiting from excitement about Obama, Toso said.

Rossi's spokeswoman, Jill Strait, said many people who voted for Rossi in 2004 "didn't do much else because they didn't think he had much chance of winning then." But it's a different story this time, Strait said.

The state Democratic Party has a different view, however. Spokesman Kelly Steele said Rossi's new-donor numbers are higher because the Republican has used underhanded tactics. Rossi, a part-owner of the Everett AquaSox, used the baseball team's mailing list to solicit donors — a mistake that Rossi's campaign apologized for. Democrats say he also helped build his donor base from a nonprofit foundation he headed.

Strait said the AquaSox list led to just 65 donations, for $6,815. Ellis said the Public Disclosure Commission's investigation of Rossi's foundation and $356,770 in donations to it did not support Steele's charge.

"I don't see how that could be stretched into all those new donors," Ellis said. "It would be hard in my mind to equate the two."

The Public Disclosure Commission last December dismissed allegations that Rossi had used his foundation as a way to campaign without having to disclose his donors.

Bob Young: 206-464-2174 or byoung@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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