ANNISTON -- State Rep. Randy Wood, R-Saks, has a little more than $100,000 in his campaign coffers. Democratic opponent Nicki Arnold Swindle had $432.50 at the end of August.
But both candidates made sure to get ads on the podcast of Friday night’s Saks High School football game.
“That’s where the majority of constituents are,” Wood said. “You’ve got to go there.”
Swindle and Wood aren’t alone in trying to get their message out to high school football fans. Candidates in Alabama’s midterm elections have spent about $17,000 on advertising at sporting events or donations to high school sports teams at schools in Calhoun County, according to campaign finance reports. Statewide, candidates have forked over $218,226 to high schools in the 2018 election cycle.
Spending statewide peaks in August, when the football season begins.
“These are your friends and neighbors, the people you want to reach,” said Lori Owens, a political science professor at Jacksonville State University. “The people in your district expect you to support important local causes, and what’s more important to them than what happens under the Friday night lights?”
Local ads at football games are nothing new, but campaign spending on football season was never as obvious as it was last week, when candidates turned in their spending reports for August.
It was a feast-or-famine month for candidates, largely because Calhoun County’s legislative districts run dark red or deep blue.
State Sen. Del Marsh, R-Anniston, led the pack with $116,185 on hand at the beginning of September, after spending $69,853 on his campaign in August.
Much of that spending was likely for ads that have yet to run. Marsh, the president pro tempore of the Senate, has maintained a low profile since the June 5 primary, though he told Consolidated News Service last month his campaign likely wouldn’t kick into full gear after Labor Day.
Other local Republicans also have deep pockets but are spending less. Wood spent only $3,917 from a war chest of about $104,000 in August. Rep. K.L. Brown, R-Jacksonville, spent $3,875 and ended August with $29,513 in campaign funds.
If GOP candidates are keeping their powder dry, it may be because outspending local Democrats isn’t hard. Marsh’s opponent, Jim Williams, spent only $3,602 in August. Other local Democrats have also raised and spent in the low thousands.
Friday night lights
Rich or poor, almost every candidate made a point of writing checks to local schools for ads in football programs or banners to hang along the fence under the Friday night lights. Some spent earlier in the year on baseball and softball ads or fishing-team sponsorships.
“I was a cheerleader in school and I had to sell program ads myself,” said Swindle, the Democratic candidate in House District 36. “It’s a perfect match for me, because I want to support schools.”
Swindle spent $2,230 in August, $500 of it on advertising at Saks High.
Like most things in the campaign, spending on football is strategic — driven by demographics, an awareness of local rivalries and a look over the shoulder to see what the other guy is doing.
Jim Williams, the Democratic Senate candidate, said he expected to campaign at games in Weaver and Saks in coming weeks. Both places are in the back yard of Weaver Mayor Wayne Willis, who challenged Marsh for the GOP nomination earlier this year.
“These places went heavily for Wayne Willis in the primary,” he said. “I don’t know if they’ll vote for me, but at least they’re not automatic votes for Del Marsh.”
Attempts to reach Marsh for comment were unsuccessful, but the incumbent has spent at Saks, Oxford and Piedmont.
For Williams, football was part of the plan from the beginning. His first campaign flier, he said, included college football schedules for Alabama, Auburn and Jacksonville State.
“I wanted to give them something they could put on the fridge and look at more than one time,” Williams said.
Name recognition is a major source of anxiety for local Democrats in Calhoun County, where Republicans often have incumbency and fundraising on their side.
“The biggest battle is just letting people know there’s even another option,” said Pamela Howard, a Jacksonville resident and candidate for House District 40.
Attempts to reach Howard’s opponent, Rep. K.L. Brown, R-Jacksonville, were unsuccessful. Like Howard, Brown advertises at Jacksonville High and Alexandria.
For Republican incumbents, it’s more about maintaining a good name with voters. Wood said he pays for ads even in non-election years, to convince people their support for the school is solid.
Wood advertises not only in Saks, but also at Alexandria High, which isn’t in his district.
“The voters may not live there, but a lot of them have kids who go to school there,” Wood said.
Even this year, there are ads for candidates who aren’t really in the running. Fans at Jacksonville High will occasionally hear announcers say, “This touchdown brought to you by County Commissioner Lee Patterson” — even though Patterson is running unopposed this year. Unopposed candidates such as Sheriff Matthew Wade and Circuit Clerk Kim McCarson also sponsor teams at various local schools.
Candidates put a lot of thought into their football strategies, but they sometimes hate to discuss why they chose one school over another.
“What kind of trouble are you trying to get me into?” joked Rep. Becky Nordgren, R-Gadsden, when asked about her advertising choices.
Campaign finance records show that Nordgren made one of the state’s largest high-school advertising buys this year, a $3,000 payment to Gadsden City High School.
She has also advertised with Hokes Bluff, Sardis, Southside and other schools in her district. So far, all those donations combined don’t equal the Gadsden City High expenditure.
Nordgren says the $3,000 got her an 8-by-18 sign on the side of the concession stand at Gadsden City’s Titans Stadium. That stadium — and the sign — are visible from Interstate 759, she said. And the price, she said, was comparable to a billboard.
“It’s a win-win,” she said. “I get the billboard and I get to help the kids.”
Nordgren’s opponent, Democrat Jared Millican, said he’s not impressed.
“It just shows that we’ve got way too much money in politics,” he said.
Millican had $1,757 in his campaign coffers at the end of August. Even Millican spends some money on games, passing out candy and fans to voters he meets at the stadium.
“It’s the one place you meet the entire electorate,” he said. “Football is king in Alabama.”
Owens, the political science professor, said she learned something about campaigning during her own stint on the Cherokee County Commission: Hand out something people can use, like a fan.
“If you just pass out campaign literature, they’ll just throw it down on the ground,” she said. “Then somebody has to clean it up.”
Asked what he hears from football fans at the games, Millican said the themes are similar to what he hears anywhere on the campaign trail.
“They say we need better jobs, they say we need better pay, they say our health care sucks,” he said. “And then there are the people who just won’t talk to you because you’re a Democrat or because you’re a Republican.”
Football season can turn Friday in to an all-hands emergency for a small campaign. Candidates who can’t be in town for the game often find a surrogate to campaign for them. Able to be only in one place at a time, candidates have to make tough choices.
“I’ve got four games to pick from tonight,” Nordgren said in a Friday morning interview. “I’m probably going to go to Sardis-versus-Southside because they’re both in the district.”
Capitol & statewide reporter Tim Lockette: 256-294-4193. On Twitter @TLockette_Star.