- Associated Press - Tuesday, June 2, 2015

RICHMOND, Va. (AP) - Challengers looking to knock off incumbent state lawmakers during next week’s primary will have to do so at a large spending disadvantage.

Eight out of the nine office holders facing a primary challenge enjoy significant cash advantages over their rivals ahead of the June 9 primary, according to an analysis by the Virginia Public Access Project, a nonprofit money-in-politics tracker.

The most recent campaign finance reports show incumbents have spent more during the final weeks of the campaign and have more cash on hand than their challengers, often by large amounts. For instance, Richmond Democrat Betsy Carr’s spending in the past two months and her reported cash on hand is 76 times greater than her primary opponent, Preston Brown.

In the marquee primary contest, House Speaker William J. Howell spent more than $200,000 in April and May, and has $528,000 cash on hand. Together that’s 12 times more cash than his opponent Susan Stimpson.

Incumbents typically raise more than challengers thanks to their access and relationships with the businesses and other groups that largely fuel Virginia politics. But having the most money doesn’t always mean victory. Two years ago, then-Del. Joe May spent more than $450,000 in a Republican primary while losing to tea party challenger Dave LaRock, who spent about $80,000. The only incumbent who is at a cash disadvantage in this year’s primary is Republican Del. Mark Berg, a tea party favorite who beat an incumbent in 2013 despite having less money.

Portsmouth attorney Stephen Heretick, who is challenging longtime Democratic Del. Johnny Joannou, said his opponent’s position on the powerful House Appropriations Committee and ability to shape the state budget has made it especially difficult to get through to institutional donors. But Heretick said challengers who “really shape a message that donors will listen to” and spend their limited funds wisely can still win.

“Money is of course essential. It’s the life blood of your ability to message,” Heretick said. “But by the same token, in careful campaign management we find ways to nip and tuck.”

Bill Haley, a tea party candidate who just reported having $331 cash on hand compared to opponent Chesapeake Republican Sen. John Cosgrove’s $19,000, said the low-turnout nature of primary elections brings out highly motivated voters who don’t need to be reached with pricey advertising.

“Those are the folks doing the research,” Haley said.

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