By Katharine DeRosa
This year’s campaign for the at-large county chairman seat on the board of supervisors will be a three-way race, but one unlikely to set spending records in efforts to woo the favor of Loudoun’s 258,000 registered voters.
Incumbent County Chairwoman Phyllis J. Randall (D-At Large) faces two challengers. One, Leesburg attorney and former Republican Party of Virginia Chairman John Whitbeck, has already raised well over a quarter of a million dollars for his campaign. The other, attorney and former School Board member Bob Ohneiser, refuses to accept any donations.
Running a countywide campaign is expensive, but candidates’ approaches to fundraising have varied from year to year and campaign to campaign. Four years ago, there were four candidates on the ballot for the chairman’s seat and Randall won despite spending only $88,000—less than a third of incumbent Scott K. York’s budget.
That year chairman candidates spent more than $550,000. But that wasn’t even a record. That was set in 2003, in a three-way race that featured York running as an independent and Republican Bob Gordon and Democrat Al Van Huyck who combined to spent nearly $900,000.
Since 2003, the average amount candidates spend on a Board of Supervisors races is $94,000, which is about 70 percent of the median household income in Loudoun. Yet, some candidates manage to be successful with less—while others have lost while spending far more.
So far in this campaign, the 20 candidates running for nine board seats have combined to raise $1.42 million.
First-term supervisor and former Leesburg mayor Kristen C. Umstattd (D-Leesburg) spent about $25,000 in 2015, the smallest sum of any candidate, but managed to win Leesburg with 57 percent of the vote, one of the higher margins of victory in 2015. This year, she is the only incumbent supervisor not facing a challenger on the November ballot.
“If you do a lot of door to door, you can generally win, even if you’re outspent seven to one, so … I try to make connections with every voter I can hit,” Umstattd said.
Umstattd’s tactic of talking to voters may work in more concentrated districts like Leesburg, but people campaigning for larger districts, such as Blue Ridge, don’t have the luxury of being able to walk door to door. That district, which reaches from Clarke County to Dulles Airport, covers about half of the county’s geographic area.
Four years ago, Blue Ridge District Supervisor Tony Buffington (R) spent nearly four times as much as his competitor, pulling out a win. His largest expenses consisted of mailings, yard signs and a Facebook ad—all less personal, but practical tactics.
The only two candidates who raised more than Buffington did in 2015 were Supervisor Suzanne M. Volpe (R-Algonkian) and York, raising $166,203 and $305,161 respectively.
Volpe garnered just over 52 percent of the vote, while York—an incumbent Republican running as an independent—lost to Randall in a four-way race that also included Thomas Bellanca and Charles King.
“Social media is a wonderful thing … but what helps more is when you talk to people one on one about issues they care about, about things that impact their lives,” Randall said of her win. “They become your surrogates.”
Two terms before that, in 2007, York defeated challenger Mike Firetti, who had raised nearly half a million dollars. Firetti’s most significant donor was himself, as $150,000 of his campaign funds were from his own pocket—a risk that most people can’t afford to take.
When asked about his own significant fundraising, Whitbeck said, “message drives fundraising.” In the first quarter alone of 2019, Whitbeck raised more than $200,000, with four large donations of $25,000 fromFCi Federal founder Sharon Virts; Holtzman Oil Corp. owner William Holtzman of Mt. Jackson; Leesburg-based political action committee Loudoun First; and Alexandria-based political action committee Conservatives for Effective Government.
“You don’t have a successful campaign if all your money comes from one source. I am just as excited as I am about a $5 donation as I am about a $500 donation,” Whitbeck said.
Whitbeck also noted that he’s going to spend “every dollar we raise” to educate Loudoun voters about his message and who he is.
According to the most recent campaign finance disclosure filings, Whitbeck has raised just over $351,000 and Randall has raised $180,000. Ohneiser has reported no fundraising and said he plans to keep it that way.
“My dad was a dyed-in-the-wool Republican, and he always believed that if you have to take money to run for office, you don’t have your heart in it and you don’t have the right reason for being in office,” he said.
Ohneiser, a former School Board member, plans to use his name as his campaign. He said, “This might sound a little self-serving or egotistical but … I’m kind of expecting people to recognize that I’m offering myself to this service as a gesture to the community.”
Similar to Umstattd, Ohneiser plans to speak to Loudoun residents directly. He said he plans to “go on Rt. 15 on Friday afternoons and hand out my message to folks who are sitting in an hour of bumper-to-bumper traffic.”
Despite the importance of fundraising, candidates can get a win whether they have $100,000 in their back pocket or not. When asked why people vote for her, Umstattd said, “You hope it’s because people trust you and they know you and they know you care about them.”
[Katharine DeRosa completed a senior Capstone project with Loudoun Now asa senior at Broad Run High School. She has graduated and plans to attend Virginia Commonwealth University in the fall to double major in economics and mass communications.]