Back to Top

Raleigh City Council Race: Who's In The Lead?

Recently I posted a spreadsheet that summarizes the mid-year campaign finance reports of all the candidates for Raleigh City Council this year. Here I want to offer my analysis of the money that has been raised and my opinion on where the race for each seat stands. Again, this is my opinion (although I believe based on facts and reality), I have already stated who I am supporting in my post announcing that I am not running this year.

Why does money matter?

Whether you like it or not, and almost no one does, you can’t run a successful campaign (political or otherwise) without money. A political campaign is just a marketing campaign to convince people to get out to vote and to vote the way you want. In a city of a half-million people, the only way your message can get to everyone, or even to just the 50,000 people that voted in 2017, is through various means of paid advertising. The candidates that have more money to get their name and message in front of more people more times, have a much better chance of winning an election. Remember, if you are reading this, you are probably not an average voter. The average voter spends very little, if any, time researching candidates and makes their decisions based on campaign marketing that has been hand-fed to them. Even though successful campaigns need a lot of money, it does not mean the candidate needs to be independently wealthy. It doesn’t hurt to be a good salesperson, however. Successful candidates spend the majority of their time raising money. Long before they start trying to convince voters to get out and vote for them, they spend many hours over many months convincing their friends, co-workers, neighbors, and everyone in their personal network to contribute money to their campaign. They will not stop raising money until the election is over. It’s not an easy task, but many people have been very successful at raising money and winning elections while not having any of their own money to contribute (having a good network to start with is a huge plus, if not a necessity, however). A very small percentage of the money that is sitting in the campaign accounts of candidates for Raleigh City Council this year has come from the individual candidates.


The mayor’s race has three serious contenders based on fundraising numbers, Mary-Ann, Charles, and Caroline. Zainab deserves mention as she is putting a lot of effort into running, but her finance numbers mean her chances of even being a top 2 candidate in a run-off scenario are almost non-existent. Charles and Mary-Ann have the advantage of having the greatest name recognition in Raleigh since Charles was the 2nd place mayoral candidate in 2017 and Mary-Ann has served 5 terms on City Council. Caroline has served one term as a Wake County Commissioner, but her name recognition does not seem as near as high as her competition’s. Luckily for Caroline, she has by far raised the most money and that could certainly help her overcome the name recognition hurdle. Charles raised $35k more money than Mary-Ann, but Mary-Ann currently has $22k more cash on hand. This is because Charles has also spent a lot more money since he has a paid campaign team. It appears Mary-Ann has no paid staff as of yet, if/when she adds paid help, that will likely accelerate her fundraising efforts. I do not see Charles getting much new support beyond the voters he got in 2017. Charles has recently aligned himself with Stef Mendell, David Cox, and presumably Russ Stephenson. I don’t know exactly how this will affect his voter base, but I suspect it will have close to a net-zero impact as he will lose and gain some voters from this move. As things stand now, I think Charles will get a similar percentage of the votes this time as he did last time and the remaining votes will be split mostly between Mary-Ann and Caroline. This will lead to a run-off between Charles and either Mary-Ann or Caroline. If I had to call this election now, I would say it goes to whichever of those two makes it into the runoff.


The At-Large race now has 3 serious contenders for 2 seats. Nicole has raised the most money and will keep her seat, likely even being the top vote-getter in this race. Olen Watson and I dropped out of this race so that one strong contender could emerge as the challenger to Russ Stephenson. From the fundraising numbers, it is clear that Jonathan Melton is that challenger and I will add him to my list of endorsements based on these numbers. However, the reality is that Russ still has more cash on hand than Jonathan and Russ still enjoys quite a bit of support across the city. Beating Russ is going to take more money and more messaging on why it is time for Russ to go. I know that quite a bit of PAC money is flowing into Raleigh this year, I’m not sure how much of this will be targeted at Russ. Stef seems to be target #1 and David Cox target #2. Russ has been on council for 14 years and is generally less controversial than some other members of the council, so no matter how you slice it, he will be hard to beat. Jonathan’s best-case scenario is forcing a run-off with Russ and it’s too early to foresee how that would play out.


This race is between Patrick Buffkin and Sam Hershey. Right now both candidates have almost the same amount of cash. The biggest difference is that most of Sam’s money came from family with a total of 24 donations while Patrick earned his through 148 donations. Ultimately money is money, but these numbers would suggest that Patrick has greater fundraising potential and unless Sam is able to to start getting donations from Raleigh citizens, Patrick will pull away and lead in the money race. We will have to wait and see how this plays out.


David Cox vs. Brian Fitzsimmons. Brian has out-raised David, but it’s close enough right now that David’s name recognition would be hard to overcome. It is important to notice, however, that $10,800 of the $18,800 that David has raised came from the Debnam family. This puts him in a similar scenario as Sam in district A where unless David can get donations from a broader base, Brian will pull ahead. Combined with PAC money expected in this race, this could put Brian in a competitive position.


Corey Branch is the incumbent in this district, and even though I could not find a finance report for him yet, there is little reason to think he won’t win re-election. Shelia has raised a few thousand dollars and has run at-large before where she received around 10,000 votes. This makes her the strongest challenger, but assuming Corey runs a campaign, he is going to be very hard to beat in district C.


This is currently a crowded race and that benefits Kay Crowder. We can mark April off, not only from fundraising numbers but as a registered Republican in district D, this campaign is just about DoA. Kay has the most cash on hand by a large margin since she had almost $40k leftover from the last election cycle. Saige is raising a lot of money (more than Kay) and probably will continue to do so. However, while overcoming the Crowder dynasty is hard enough, it has currently been made almost impossible by having a second challenger that has also raised a respectable, but significantly less, amount of money, Brittany Bryan. I personally like Brittany and she is part of the reason I decided to run at-large instead of district D since she had been talking about running in district D for so long. Although, at this point, if I was her and my goal was to get Kay out of office, I would likely drop out and let Saige’s fundraising machine take Kay head-on. This is a race that will be interesting to watch.


Stef is in trouble. David Knight has over twice as much cash on hand as Stef. Stef and David Cox are in a tight race for the most controversial council member. Combine that with the fact that this is Stef’s first term and she only won by a few hundred votes in 2017, this race has the best chance of flipping a seat. We know one PAC has already invested in a direct mail piece attacking Stef and I’m expecting quite a bit more PAC money will be spent here as well. It’s still early, but if I was a betting man, David Knight will be district E’s representative this Fall.


As I mentioned earlier, most of a candidate’s donors come from their personal network and the networks of their close associates. However, there are some people that donate for reasons other than personal association and there are some names you will see quite often on the finance reports of Raleigh City Council candidates. Dean Debnam and his wife, for example, give the legal maximum ($5400 per person right now) to a handful of candidates each year. This year they gave over $10k to each Charles Francis, Russ Stephenson, David Cox, and Stef Mendell. There are also several developers and attorneys that you will see give to just about every serious candidate, even competing candidates with very different platforms. I can only surmise this is because their business depends on cooperation from the Council and they are hedging their bets so they can say they supported whoever wins. I encourage all that are interested to look through the finance reports as they list the name and occupation of everyone that gives over $50. You will probably have to search both the county elections site and the NC state site.


It is still fairly early in this election cycle, the candidate filing period just ended a little over a week ago! My projections are based on the assumption that the people that vote this year are similar to those that voted in 2017. We can hope that isn’t the case. In 2017 only about 50k people voted out of over 300k registered voters in Raleigh, and that was a record turn out for a municipal election in Raleigh. Also consider the average age of the voters in 2017 was about 60 while the average age of all registered voters was about 45. We have a lot of room to improve our voter turnout. Given that we have a high profile mayor’s race this year and there are some city issues that are getting more attention than usual, like AirBnb, scooters, and downtown re-zonings, there is reason to hope that we can bring new people out to vote. Only positive things can come from more community engagement, so help spread the word about this election and what is important to you!

Paid for By Friends of Robert Rikard
Powered by - Political Websites