How much did Modesto-area candidates spend per vote? You might be surprised

Spending $63 per vote may have helped Meg Whitman win the Republican primary for California governor. But it may not have worked for Bill Lyons, whose locally unprecedented vote-cost ratio was about the same as Whitman's in an apparently unsuccessful bid for Stanislaus County supervisor.

Lyons, who conceded last week despite incomplete returns, obliterated ratios from all supervisor races for the past eight years, raising $63.51 for each of the 5,038 votes he attracted.

Election workers continue tallying about 2,000 votes, including provisional and damaged ballots, and have not predicted when they'll finish.

By contrast, opponent Terry Withrow raised $19.76 for each of his 5,127 votes — roughly similar to ratios in similar campaigns previously — and enjoys an 89-vote lead.

Money is important in any race, some observers said, but is far from the only factor. In fact, in the last 11 competitive races for county supervisor, eight have been won by candidates who spent less per vote than their opponents (assuming Withrow's lead holds).

"The issue isn't spending more than the other person," said political consultant Mike Lynch. "The issue is having enough to get your message out. Once you meet that threshold, you're on a relatively level playing field."

Wealthy candidates have pumped millions into campaigns near and far, with varying success. Last week, Whitman spent at least $71 million from her own eBay-enriched pocket, The Associated Press reported. Others include her vanquished GOP rival, Steve Poizner, as well as three-term New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg.

Closer to home, Lyons' $320,000 campaign account included at least $96,200 in self-loans — nearly as much as Withrow's $101,300 total collections, and far more than the $71,000 yearly pay for supervisors.

Withrow loaned his campaign $10,000 near the end, for four days of advertising in The Bee. He'll always wonder whether that last-minute investment did the trick that some are calling a minor miracle — a political newcomer apparently snatching victory from a well-financed former state agriculture secretary.

"Bill is so well-known and well-liked around here," Withrow said. "We said we would put (the final loan) in, and if nothing else, we'll know we fought a good fight."

In Stanislaus County, registered Democratic voters outnumber Republican voters by 14,951. But last week, Republicans cast 6,049 more ballots than Democrats, presumably thanks to high GOP interest in primaries for governor, U.S. Senate, the House of Representatives and state Assembly, none of which held much intrigue for Democratic voters.

And Withrow aligned himself with conservatives, winning an endorsement from the county's Republican central committee. That Lyons captured just about all other major endorsements, including many Republican leaders, seemed not to matter.

Lyons' lengthy political history likely hurt him in the valley, where "Republicans feel they've got the wind at their back," said Jack Heinsius, a Modesto Junior College instructor. Lyons formerly served on the Modesto Irrigation District board and was county Farm Bureau president, in addition to serving in former Gov. Gray Davis' cabinet.

"For most, the mother's milk of politics is kind of sour," Heinsius said. "There was such a pro-conservative movement and attitude against anything that had to do with government. People looked at Meg Whitman and said, 'She doesn't vote? That's good!' "

Cash is more important in races for state and federal office because they demand costly television and radio advertising, said University of the Pacific political studies professor Bob Benedetti. Local campaigns rely more on newspapers, yard signs, mailers and walking precincts, he said.

Withrow energetically knocked on doors throughout District 3, which includes northwest Modesto and Salida, and raised enough money for a few fliers. At some point, Lyons' financial advantage became subject to the law of diminishing returns, Lynch said.

"It wasn't a question of being dwarfed by Bill's spending," Lynch said. "If you have enough money to get your message out, you can't be swamped by the other guy."

Notes from other races:

In the District 4 supervisorial campaign, challenger Balvino Irizarry raised more per vote ($4.78) than incumbent Dick Monteith ($3.99) in a three-way race, but Monteith still won enough votes to avoid a November runoff. The ratio for the third candidate, former Modesto Mayor Carmen Sabatino, was $3.16.

Stanislaus County Sheriff Adam Christianson raised more than twice as much as challenger Rob Jackson, and each vote cost the sheriff more — but he still retained his job by a comfortable margin, with more than 57 percent of the vote.

In a six-way race for an open judgeship, Geoff Hutcheson raised far more than five other candidates but finished fourth. He raised $5.40 for every vote received — more than twice the ratio for Shawn Bessey and Nancy Williamsen, who will head to a November runoff.

Auditor-controller-elect Lauren Klein gave her campaign nearly $17,000 instead of loaning the money, as most candidates do, partly as a rookie mistake, she said. It was the first time she'd run for office. Klein also knows that candidates for lower-profile office don't have the same capacity to raise donations. "I was thinking that even if I do get contributions in the future, it probably wouldn't be significant enough to pay me back," she said. Klein's cash-per-vote ratio was the most economical among this year's county races, at only 65 cents per vote.

Four days before the election, Assessor-elect Dave Cogdill, who will leave his legislative seat, transferred $100,000 from his state Senate fundraising committee to another created for his assessor campaign. Cogdill reported the total transfer as required, but doesn't have to list individual donors until the next reporting deadline near the end of July. He ran unopposed last week.

Bee staff writer Garth Stapley can be reached at or 578-2390.