CONCORD, N.H. >> The dash for campaign cash in the New Hampshire governor's race is at its peak as an early June filing deadline looms, bringing with it dramatic reductions in how much money candidates can raise from individuals and political committees.
But voters won't get a full look at who's giving to whom — or how the candidates are spending their money — until mid-August, a mere three weeks before they cast primary votes.
"The voters are basically flying in the dark," said Larry Noble, general counsel for the Campaign Legal Center, a non-profit focused on campaign finance and election law.
Three Democrats and four Republicans are vying to replace outgoing Gov. Maggie Hassan, a Democrat who is running for U.S. Senate. The Democratic candidates are Executive Councilor Colin Van Ostern, former Portsmouth mayor Steve Marchand and businessman Mark Connolly. Republicans seeking the seat are Executive Councilor Chris Sununu, state Sen. Jeanie Forrester, Manchester Mayor Ted Gatsas and state Rep. Frank Edelblut. The primary is Sept. 13.
The race has been underway for months, but candidates must file their official paperwork between June 1 and 10. Until then, a candidate can raise up to $5,000 from individuals and businesses and, in some cases, unlimited money from political action committees. But as soon as the paperwork is filed, the limit drops to $1,000 each in the primary and the general. That means someone who gives before and after the filing deadline could give a maximum of $7,000, but someone who doesn't start giving until after will max out at $2,000. In fiercely competitive primaries, the early race for cash can be critical for future success.
"It's a big difference — especially for the amount of funding that is available for a small state like New Hampshire," said Andy Crews, a Bedford businessman running Gatsas' finance team.
The two-tiered system for giving was in the spotlight in 2014, when Hassan's campaign had to return all but $1,000 of a $25,000 check from a labor union PAC — because it came in a day after she filed. Had it come in a day earlier, she would've been able to keep it all.
None of the campaigns would tell The Associated Press how much they've raised to date — and they're not required to share with the public until Aug. 24. That means a candidate like Chris Sununu, who launched his campaign in September, has nearly a full year to raise money before sharing details about it with voters.
"The fact that you can get through this pre-announcement stage and then through until August before you have to show where you've gotten your money from is not very healthy," Noble said.
Van Ostern's campaign pledged to file a fund-raising report in June, when non-candidate committees must file. None of the other candidates made similar commitments, but some said they'd consider filing earlier based on their opponents' actions.
Adding to the confusion: Candidates in New Hampshire aren't required to file their fundraising paperwork electronically, and it's difficult to track an individual's or business's contributions over time. The National Institute on Money in State Politics gave New Hampshire an "F" grade in its 2016 disclosure scorecard.
The cost of statewide races has been steadily ticking up in New Hampshire in the past several cycles. The 2014 race between Hassan and Republican Walt Havenstein, who contributed personally to his campaign, brought in roughly $5.3 million in donations, compared to $2.8 in 2010, according to data from the institute. And that doesn't count outside money from groups like the Republican and Democratic Governor's Associations.
Edelblut is independently wealthy and plans to contribute to his own campaign, but campaign consultant Brent Littlefield wouldn't say how much. Connolly and Gatsas also have an ability to self-fund, but neither's campaign will say if they plan to do so.