Chaka Fattah and wife Renee Chenault-Fattah Credit: Wikimedia Commons

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Getting in touch with the campaign of embattled Philadelphia congressman Chaka Fattah, who’s in the process of fighting for his freedom and simultaneously running for re-election, is difficult.

An email sent to the address listed on the longtime U.S. representative’s campaign page bounces. Maybe it’s a glitch.

But for the veteran politician, who hasn’t faced an opponent in a primary race for his second district congressional seat since first winning it in 1994, the glitch could well be part of something larger: Does Chaka Fattah still have the political, personal and financial wherewithal to run in a competitive Democratic primary for his seat?

Surveying the field

Fattah is facing four opponents in April’s primary. All of them have reported more money to spend on the race, including the relatively unknown Township Commissioner in suburban Lower Merion. Of his opponents, arguably the most formidable is state Rep. Dwight Evans, a well-connected politico from the Northwest who is no stranger to fundraising and just received Mayor Jim Kenney’s endorsement. He brought in $360,000 in campaign contributions over the last year and has about $303,000 left in his war chest, according to the most recently filed paperwork with the Federal Elections Commission.

State Rep. Brian Sims raised more than $230,000 and has $181,000 on hand. Meanwhile, Fattah had less than $6,000 on-hand by the end of 2015, most of which was spent on attorney fees and consulting firms. The congressman is facing 29 counts of corruption following a lengthy federal probe into his finances. Fattah did not respond to requests for comment, on the emails we sent that made it through.

The amount of money Fattah has spent running for re-election in recent years is among the lowest in the nation. For the entire election period of 2011-12, he spent $162,000. The average expenses for a winner of a U.S. House seat were $1.6 million. In a nearby congressional race in 2014, winner Brendan Boyle spent about $724,000 before the primary, and he was outspent by three opponents who all spent more than $1 million, according to FEC filings. Fattah spent $282,000 before the primary that year.        

The comparatively small sums he has spent haven’t gone toward what most would consider campaign expenses. With the exception of his bid for mayor of Philadelphia in 2007, Fattah hasn’t needed to spend campaign dollars on ads leading up to the primary or the general elections. According to FEC filings, he didn’t spend any money leading up to the primary in 2014 on advertising.

He instead spent the vast majority of his cash during the most crucial parts of the campaign that year — some $80,000 — on attorneys and legal research. It’s been like this for years. Fattah dropped more than $1,000 on a hotel room in Georgetown in 2001, which included an $11 movie. PPA tickets have also been routine expenses.

This time around is different. While Fattah doesn’t have the cash yet to pay for produced TV ads or large mailer blasts, constituents in his district recently received mailers about the work he’s done in Philly and Washington.

fattah mailer
Credit: Anna Orso/Billy Penn

Since they came from his congressional office and not his campaign, though, taxpayer money was used to foot the cost. That’s why it doesn’t say “re-elect” or mention the fact that he’s facing opponents in a few months; including that information would violate FEC rules.

Campaigning like it’s 1999

A lot has changed since the last time Fattah faced real opponents. Back in 1994, the internet was so nascent that AOL Instant Messenger hadn’t even been introduced.

“In the last 20 years, technology has fundamentally changed all of the different facets of campaigning,” said Mark Nevins, a Philadelphia-based Democratic strategist. “It’s easy to say social media and online advertising is where the change is, but the truth is everything is fundamentally different.”

For one thing, grassroots-supported candidates now rely largely on fundraising through email, as more campaigns rely on services like ActBlue, a company that collects and organizes political donations for Democratic candidates

Importantly, technology has allowed politicians and strategists to better target their resources, something a candidate like Fattah is low on this election cycle. Nevins said that back in the day, volunteers working on a campaigns made cold call lists and sheets of addresses to hit in the district to speak to about their candidate.

Today, voter information databases exist. So for instance if someone in the district has donated to the campaign already, volunteers can skip that house because they likely don’t need to be persuaded to vote for that candidate. Other technology allows campaigns to better track decided, undecided or unavailable voters, so candidates can more efficiently target their resources.

Nevins said when it comes to advertising, some campaigns and managers still refuse to go digital because the political campaign industry lacks agreed-upon metrics in terms of determining success in Internet or social media ad campaigns. That means TV — the hands-down most expensive form of advertising — still rules.

“Television advertising is the brass ring of campaign communications,” he said. “You reach the most people with the most intensity.”

Television ads likely won’t start until March or April as the primary draws near. Fattah’s $6,000 on-hand wouldn’t pay for consistent ad spots that would compete with his opponents. According to the Sunlight Foundation, 30-second ads averaged $1,000 per commercial in the final two months of the election.

Pressing the flesh

Scott Heppard, district director for Boyle and a field director during his 2014 campaign, said the importance of face-to-face interaction with prospective voters has also not changed in the last 20 years. For Boyle’s campaign, volunteers and staffers reached about 70 percent of the people in their district, perhaps helping Boyle overcome a nearly 2-to-1 spending advantage his opponents enjoyed. But Boyle’s campaign started their door-to-door efforts 10 months before the primary. Fattah will have to make up for lost time.

If there’s one aspect of this election favoring him, it might be that he’s not alone. His rival Evans has faced little to no competition for his state representative seat since taking it over in 1980.

“You can look at both of these guys,” said Larry Ceisler, longtime political strategist and principal of Ceisler Communications, “and say they’ve never really had to defend their seats. When they ran for Mayor against each other they couldn’t replicate citywide what they were able to do in their districts.”

Ceisler points at Fattah allies like Councilwoman Cindy Bass, Councilman Curtis Jones Jr. and state Sen. Vincent Hughes as using the same “political operation” as Fattah. That operation has been working for them. Another longtime ally, city Democratic chairman Bob Brady, endorsed him.

He’s also still Chaka Fattah. That name has been the only one on primary ballots in the 2nd District for the last 20 years.

“This is not about Dwight Evans, Brian Sims or Dan Muroff, it’s about Chaka Fattah,” Ceisler said. “If Chaka hadn’t been indicted, there wouldn’t be a primary election. They’re going to be voting up and down on Chaka Fattah. Not on anybody else.”

Mark Dent is a reporter/curator at BillyPenn. He previously worked for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, where he covered the Jerry Sandusky scandal, Penn State football and the Penn State administration. His...