With the race for Topeka mayor down to Michelle De La Isla and Spencer Duncan, voters can expect the two to hone their messages over the next three months.
Much of that will likely be done with the candidates spending thousands more dollars on increased campaign advertising.
The pair will have to draw clearer distinctions between themselves, which could make for a heated campaign season, said Joan Wagnon, a former Topeka mayor and state legislator. De La Isla’s voting record as city council member would be fair game for the Duncan campaign, she said, just as Duncan’s lack of experience would be for De La Isla’s campaign. But both will have to go beyond that.
“At the end of the day it’s your reputation in the community and your contacts,” she said. “That’s how you draw supporters and get them involved.”
De La Isla and Duncan escaped last week’s primary with 41.29 percent and 21.19 percent of the vote respectively, but both said they wouldn’t focus on those election results as the campaign for the Nov. 7 general election.
Less than 13 percent of the Topeka’s eligible voters turned out last Tuesday, but general election turnout will likely be higher since multiple council seats will be on the ballot. Duncan said that could work in his favor.
“A greater percent didn’t vote at all,” he said. “I haven’t spent any time thinking about the ‘gap.’ There’s plenty of people who haven’t heard my message and didn’t vote.”
Duncan plans to continue campaigning on three talking points he hit hard during primary forums and debates: Improve access to affordable housing, address street concerns without raising taxes, and promote Topeka and build a positive image for the city.
“I think when voters look at it, they’ll see I have real solutions,” Duncan said.
De La Isla also reiterated her focus is on improving quality of life and public safety, boosting economic development and job creation and continuing the city’s focus on infrastructure improvements.
“The mayor is the one who hears from all the city, not just one district,” De La Isla said. “I think people are really paying attention now, and I’m going to be working as if I just started (the campaign) yesterday.”
If campaign spending is any indication on how a candidate will do at the ballot box, it should be no surprise De La Isla and Duncan took the lead.
De La Isla raised just over $14,000 and spent all but $2,000 during the primary, the most of any candidate. Duncan came in just behind, spending about $10,000 of the $15,000 in cash he had available. About $10,000 of that was from donations, the rest Duncan loaned himself to kick-start his campaign.
The candidates raise money in different ways, with Duncan pulling in many donations around $100 or smaller and De La Isla relying on fewer, larger donors.
De La Isla received two $500 donations from Bettis Asphalt, a prominent contractor that often competes for public projects, according to campaign finance records. De La Isla said such donations wouldn’t be a factor when considering city contracts because bids are vetted through the city manager’s office. She also received $500 from the local firefighters’ union.
Chris Imming, who championed a protest petition during the city’s attempt to buy the Heartland Park racetrack, donated $25 to Duncan’s campaign. Duncan’s father, Robert “Tuck” Duncan, represented Imming in a lawsuit against the city.
Both candidates indicated they intend to spend equal or greater amounts on their campaigns through Novmember.
Spending will be key, Wagnon said. When she successfully ran for mayor in 1997, she spent as much as $100,000 between the primary and general election. The bulk of that went to TV and radio spots, which Wagnon said are vital for candidates in a citywide election because they maximize exposure. Candidates should be prepared to produce at least three TV ads: an introduction ad, an issues ad and a response to any criticism leveled from opposing groups.
Candidates should also target voters most likely to cast ballots in local elections.
“Mail and TV is a package deal, and then you put your walking shoes on and you walk select neighborhoods,” she said. “I say ‘select’ because you can’t get to them all.”
In-person contact at neighborhood and club meetings is important as well, she said, but likely won’t be enough to bring in votes.
“You can get exposure, but at the end of the day that’s only about 20 percent of the voters,” she said. “It won’t swing a race by itself.”
Wagnon, a Democrat, lives in unincorporated Shawnee County and can’t vote in the mayoral race.
The spot for second place behind De La Isla, who secured more than 3,500 votes, was relatively close with Duncan taking about 1,800 votes, Chris Schultz with more than 1,600 and Clark Trammell coming in with about 1,300.
Spending on campaign ads clearly helped influence voters, Schultz said. His campaign had under $5,000 and spent just over half. He was critical of spending large amounts in local elections.
“The thing I was doing was just trying to talk to people, and a lot of the people I talked to didn’t have money,” he said. “The game needs to be changed and it needs to be more about people and less about who spends the most.”
The race has already seen questionable maneuvers not linked to a particular campaign.
The day before the primary, Duncan brought to light postcards labeling him as a Republican and De La Isla as a Democrat. Candidates were quick to criticize the cards, noting mayoral elections are nonpartisan.
Also last week, photos emerged of a woman who appeared to be stealing a Duncan sign from a yard near S.W. 17th and McAlister.
Such shenanigans have been common in local elections, Wagnon said, recalling her own campaigns for mayor.
When she ran for a second term in 2001, a toilet seat and mannequin were on display with the sign “Flush Wagnon” in the yard of one Topeka resident. After Wagnon lost the primary, the items were discovered outside the mayor’s office.
A campaign may not disclose a candidate’s party affiliation, but others may draw that distinction in order to separate the candidates. Wagnon cautioned that party affiliation rarely plays a role in local issues.
“A pothole is a pothole. It’s not Democrat pothole or a Republican pothole. It’s just a pot hole and needs to be fixed,” she said. “Sometimes people think they can tell more about a candidate and their willingness to raise taxes by their party affiliation. I’ve never found that to be true.”
Wagnon said the postcard likely didn’t sway many voters.
Duncan denounced both the cards and the sign heist as “weird” and said “this campaign should be kept to the issues and not high jinks.”
“These are distractions from the conversation,” De La Isla said. “They keep people’s attention away from the issues.”
Contact reporter Luke Ranker
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