Money isn’t the only factor in winning elections — but it is a major one. Campaign spending is one of the main determinants of whether a candidate can be viable for a particular race.
That’s why Longleaf Politics scoured campaign finance records to find out exactly how much money it takes to win different types of races in North Carolina. The results are sometimes surprising.
The table of contents lists the races in order from most expensive to least expensive in terms of campaign spending:
- U.S. Senate
- Attorney General
- Lieutenant Governor
- U.S. House
- State Supreme Court
- Secretary of State
- Agriculture Commissioner
- Labor Commissioner
- Insurance Commissioner
- Superintendent of Public Instruction
Then there are General Assembly races and county-level races, where the amount of campaign spending varies dramatically based on how competitive your race is.
- N.C. Senate
- N.C. House
- District Attorney
- District and Superior Court
- Clerk of Court
Methodology: Longleaf Politics recorded the amount spent (not the amount raised) by winning candidates in races between the year 2000 and 2018. Significant outliers in campaign spending were noted, as well as races where candidates ran unopposed.
In races where more than one seat was elected in a given year, we took the average amount spent by winning candidates.
How much money it takes to win the governor’s race: $20 million
This number has increased dramatically over the last decade, and Gov. Roy Cooper’s campaign raised the bar. He raised $24 million to then-Gov. Pat McCrory’s $17 million.
The bar now seems to be set at $20 million for a North Carolina governor’s race.
How much it takes to win a U.S. Senate race: $10 million
What’s interesting here is that the actual cost to the campaign hasn’t changed much in two decades — but the external spending has increased dramatically. The 2014 race between Thom Tillis and incumbent Kay Hagan was the most expensive in U.S. history at that time.
How much it takes to win the state attorney general race: $4 million
The 2016 race likely sets a new bar for North Carolina attorney general campaigns. After more than a decade of the seat being held by Roy Cooper, current AG Josh Stein won the open seat in 2016 by spending nearly $5 million.
How much it takes to win the lieutenant governor’s race: $2.5 million
How much it takes to win a U.S. House race: $1.5 million
The other house of Congress costs a lot less since the campaign is limited to a district instead of statewide. For this calculation, we averaged out what winning candidates across the North Carolina delegation spent.
However, there was usually a pretty wide margin between what incumbents in safe seats spent versus what first-time winners in competitive districts spent.
Even the safest incumbent spends around $500,000, and the highest is often $3 million or more.
|Year||Low spender||High spender|
|2018||$514,550.93 (Adams)||$3,783,248.98 (McHenry)|
|2016||$591,736.07 (Budd)||$2,786,514.67 (Holding)|
|2014||$375,785.52 (Meadows)||$1,820,393.60 (Ellmers)|
|2012||$639,502.76 (Coble)||$3,321,263.74 (Pittenger)|
|2010||$575,300.88 (Foxx)||$2,212,737.20 (Shuler)|
|2008||$646,079.39 (Watt)||$1,587,884.54 (McHenry)|
|2006||$358,694.64 (Butterfield)||$2,475,175.19 (Hayes)|
|2004||$400,497.60 (Coble)||$2,083,999.17 (Taylor)|
|2002||$282,520.83 (Coble)||$2,287,342.44 (Hayes)|
|2000||$266,557 (Ballenger)||$1,942,592 (Hayes)|
How much it takes to win a State Supreme Court race: $1 million
The 2018 race that saw Democrat Anita Earls unseat incumbent Republican Barbara Jackson set a new bar. With the races returning to being partisan and the Democrat dominance on the current court, expect $1 million to be the new standard.
How much it takes to win the secretary of state race: $500,000
Current Secretary of State Elaine Marshall has won this race each year in our analysis, and her level of competition has varied. Unseating Marshall would likely take more money than this, but this would be a good guideline for an open seat.
How much it takes to win the agriculture commissioner race: $500,000
The Meg Scott Phipps race in 2000 was likely an outlier. Howerver, current commissioner Steve Troxler is arguably the most popular statewide elected official in North Carolina, so unseating him would likely take more than this. But this is a good baseline for an open seat.
How much it takes to win the insurance commissioner race: $500,000
Expect the 2020 race to be a lot more expensive. Current commissioner Mike Causey’s win with only $90,000 is likely an outlier.
How much it takes to win the labor commissioner race: $250,000
Current labor commissioner Cherie Berry has won each cycle of our study, but she’s also had some tough competition in recent years.
How much it takes to win the Superintendent of Public Instruction race: $200,000
June Atkinson held this seat for the middle three cycles of our study. Surprisingly, Mark Johnson was able to unseat her without spending that much money.
How much it takes to win a state Court of Appeals race: $200,000
Though these are statewide races with a lot of influence, they are relatively low-dollar and low-information. Most of the time, these have between three to five seats on the ballot each year.
Historically, at least one incumbent has run unopposed and spent extremely little on their campaign. That’s not likely to happen again.
How much it takes to win a General Assembly: $0 to $1 million
The amount you spend surprisingly doesn’t vary much by geography. The main determinant is how competitive your race is.
Safe candidates in urban districts and rural districts spend roughly the same, roughly between $0 and $40,000. To hold off challengers, vulnerable incumbents spend around $100,000 to $300,000.
But to unseat an incumbent, challengers will spend upwards of $500,000 — and in a few cases, even $1 million or more.
In the following maps, be sure to zoom in on Charlotte and Raleigh, where there are multiple candidates displayed.
How much it takes to win county and city races: $0 to $100,000
Once you get down to the local level, things change quite a bit. The amount you spend on your race varies dramatically based on whether you’re a relatively safe incumbent or a challenger trying to win a seat for the first time. Oh, and how much you’re willing to work at fundraising.
Incumbents generally spend $10,000 if they don’t feel threatened, and $40,000 if they do. Challengers will generally spend $60,000 to $150,000 to win their seat.
Even challengers are only spending $50,000 or so. The biggest spenders? Incumbents who feel vulnerable.
District and Superior Court
These are generally very low-dollar races. It’s unusual for spending to go above $25,000.
Clerk of Court
These are countywide races, so the spending can be a tiny bit little higher in some cases. However, often these candidates won’t raise enough to bother forming a committee.
Note to reporters: Want to use these numbers in a story? That’s perfectly fine! Just cite Longleaf Politics and link to this piece.
Cover image of U.S. Rep. David Rouzer by the USDA.