Campaign spending up, voter turnout down for area school board races

UTC professor attributes Hamilton County drop-off to 'voter fatigue'


2012Rhonda Thurman: 3,994 votes; $2,555 spent; $.64 per voteKatherine Benefield: 1,360 votes; financials unavailable2016Rhonda Thurman: 2,112 votes; $6407 spent; $3.03 per votePatti Skates: 1,339 votes; $15,599 spent; $11.65 per voteJason Moses: 276 votes; $2,524 spent; $9.14 per vote


2012Jonathan Welch: 4,035 votes: $6,951 spent (incomplete); $1.72 per voteMike Harvey (write-in campaign): 1,809 write-in votes; $2,313 spent (incomplete); $1.28 per vote2016Jonathan Welch: 1,693 votes; $1,017 spent; $.6 per voteKathy Lennon: 1,791 votes; $11, 628 spent; $6.49 per vote


2012George Ricks: 2,239 votes: $0 spent (unopposed)2016George Ricks: 753 votes; $1,696 spent; $2.25 per voteTiffanie Robinson: 807 votes: $22,784 spent; $28.23 per voteMontrell Besley: 522 votes; $2,228 spent; $4.27 per voteAnnette Thompson: 94 votes; unavailable


2012Donna Horn: 3,115 votes; $2,067 spent; $.66 per voteRalph I. Miller: 2,364 votes; $2,561 spent (incomplete); $1.08 per vote2016Donna Horn: 1,166 votes; $6,298 spent; $5.40 per voteJoe Wingate: 2,489 votes; $11, 791 spent; $4.74 per vote

Although campaign spending ran unusually high in the Hamilton County Board of Education races this year, voter participation dropped significantly compared to four years ago.

University of Tennessee at Chattanooga Prof. Michelle Deardorff, who heads the Political Science and Public Service Department, attributes the drop-off to "voter fatigue."

"Local general elections get missed a lot," Deardorff said. "In a big election year, many people only view [the election cycle] as a matter of primaries for state and national general elections."

With so much attention focused on the presidential and other races at federal and state levels, voters tend to significantly downplay the importance of local elections, she said.

Deardorff said she also wonders about the impact of news media readership as it transitions from engaging a hard copy delivered to their door to searching through online content.

"People have to actively seek to know more about the candidates in local races," she said.

This year, challengers outraised incumbents by great margins in four school board races. Rhonda Thurman, who has long represented District 1, which encompasses Soddy-Daisy, was the only incumbent to retain her seat. When election night ended, challengers Kathy Lennon, Tiffanie Robinson and Joe Wingate had won District 2, District 4 and District 7, respectively. They unseated Jonathan Welch, George Ricks and Donna Horn, respectively.

School board race spending now amounts to $81,972, according to campaign financial disclosures filed with the Hamilton County Election Commission. That figure accounts for spending up through July 25, 11 days before the general election. Candidates must file third quarter finances by Oct. 11.

In comparison, candidates only spent $16,447 in the 2012 races for those same seats, according to available documentation on the election commission website. Some gaps appear in the uploaded financial disclosures of some candidates, and the website has no financial records for Katherine Benefield, who challenged Thurman.

Election Administrator Kerry Steelman could not be reached for comment about the website documentation.

Robinson, who spent $22,784 and received 807 of the 2,185 votes cast in the District 4 race, accounts for the biggest spender out of all the races. On average, she spend $28.23 per vote.

"I'm not surprised," Robinson said in a phone interview Friday. "We knew we would struggle to just get the kind of voter turnout the district had four years ago."

In 2012, Ricks ran unopposed and received 2,239 out of 2,273 votes cast.

Turnout for the district, which includes parts of the Southside and East Chattanooga, may change as the makeup of the district changes, Robinson said. She said the district race faced the challenge of attrition of diehard elderly voters, who have moved or passed away, and a lack of voter participation by incoming millennials.

Robinson outspent Ricks by a margin of 13-1, while Lennon outspent Welch by 10 to 1. Skates and Wingate more or less doubled the spending of Thurman and Horn, respectively.

However, Thurman and Horn also upped the ante on their campaign spending compared to 2012. Four years ago, they each spent less than $3,000. This year they each spent more than $6,000, but received half the votes cast in their favor back in 2012. Votes cast for their challengers remained fairly consistent in both elections.

While a lot of heavy contributions to challengers' campaigns originated outside of the embattled districts, outside money hardly touched Thurman's campaign, she said in a phone interview Thursday. The deep pockets funding challengers did not seek her out, either, she said.

"They knew better," Thurman said. "My first duty is to the people of District 1."

Contact staff writer Paul Leach at 423-757-6481 or Follow on Twitter @pleach_tfp.

Hamilton County general and Tennessee primary election stories

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