Following the money: How Mississippi Senate candidates are spending campaign cash

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In the heart of southwest Jackson, obscured amidst fast food chains, a Walmart, an elementary school and a nursing home, whirs one of the most important institutions in Mississippi politics.

Located just off U.S. 18, A2Z Printing is housed in a white one-story building. In the past few years, the print shop has been hired by most Mississippi U.S. Senate campaigns to print posters, yard signs, lapel stickers, direct mail, postcards, fundraising letters, fans and other campaign materials.

Of the major-party candidates on the ballot this November, only state Sen. Chris McDaniel, R-Ellisville, and Tobey Bartee of Gautier has hired A2Z, campaign-finance records show. 

But Allen Taheri, cofounder of A2Z, makes it clear that they don’t see Democratic blue or Republican red — just dollar green. In all, campaigns have spent $64,546 at Taheri’s shop during the current cycle, according to records.

“This is a nonpartisan business,” Taheri said. “It’s purely built on capitalism, and that’s how we run it.”

At the end of the day, Taheri said, A2Z is the only print shop in the state that can meet the high demands of politicians come election time.

“If you came to me and you were running for office, and you said, ‘I need 5,000 signs,’ the normal turnaround from a screen printer would be to 2 to 3 weeks,” he said. “When you come to me and ask that, I’ll say, ‘Okay, we’ll turn that job in 3 days.’ Who are you going to give the job to?”

Taheri, along with co-founder Hootan Tabari, invested in high-grade printers that can produce thousands of yard signs in under two hours.

Eric J. Shelton, Mississippi Today

Allen Taheri (left) and Hootan Tabari are the co-founders of A2Z, which started in 2006.

In the 1980s, Taheri and Tabari emigrated from Iran to Mississippi and Louisiana, respectively. As engineering students, they didn’t know much about politics or campaigns, but they found an opening in the printing market to work with both sides of the aisle.

“We have our personal political leanings, but we don’t let that affect our business,” Taheri said. “Coming from Iran, which is a theocracy, I feel like there should be a separation of church and state. So in business there should be a separation of business and political beliefs. We treat every person with respect, we don’t care what their political leanings are. That might be the reason we’ve been able to achieve the level of growth that we have.”

They anticipate a much busier 2019, when Mississippi’s governor and lieutenant governor seats are up for election, a campaign predicted to be one of the most competitive in recent memory. Additionally, every other statewide office and nearly 200 legislative seats, 410 county supervisor seats and other state races.  

Taheri anticipates that every candidate running for statewide office will work with A2Z. Their brand has even grown to a national scale, as this year alone A2Z has made ads for campaigns in North Dakota, South Dakota, Florida and Georgia, including a couple gubernatorial races.

Federal law requires campaigns to disclose how they spend donations. In addition to campaign literature, campaigns report salaries for staff and consultants, meals, newspaper advertising and, in Sen. McDaniel’s case, even replacing blown tires on the campaign bus.

Mississippi Today analyzed the campaign spending of each U.S. Senate candidate campaign this cycle; political-action committee expenditures on behalf of candidates are not included.

Read more and explore the below map, which we will update as more reports become available.

Tracking candidates spending

Sen. Roger Wicker has by far spent the most money in 2018 out of Mississippi’s Senate candidates, with $2,817,104.22 in disbursements from his committee, Wicker for Senate, according to the Federal Election Commission.

Ad buys and media consulting dominate the candidates’ spending, accounting for about 48 percent of all disbursements this year.

Wicker for Senate was no exception, shelling out $1,429,323 to Medium Buying, a media firm in Ohio that buys ad spots for campaigns, and $373,545 to Harris Media, a digital advertising agency in Texas that helps market on Facebook and Google.

State Rep. David Baria, D-Bay St. Louis, Wicker’s opponent in the regularly scheduled Senate race, spent $528,710 since April, the second most of all the Senate candidates. Like Wicker, Baria spent about a third of his funds on media services. The Democratic candidate also spent $132,706 (25 percent of his funds) on consulting, hiring the Jackson-based Chism Strategies.

In the special election, to replace former U.S. Sen. Thad Cochran, U.S. Sen. Cindy Hyde-Smith spent about twice as much ($261,120) as Mike Espy ($133,649), who is one of three candidates challenging her.

Hyde-Smith, who received President Donald Trump’s endorsement, spent about 10 percent of her money on web services, including $23,985 to Push Digital, which designed her election website.

Espy, a former secretary of agriculture in the Bill Clinton administration, had spent the least of the Senate candidates (excluding Tobey Bartee, who does not have spending data on the FEC’s website), before a spike of $86,025 in disbursements in June.

Sixty percent of Espy’s spending ($80,400), went to research and fundraising consulting. His campaign has also worked with Chism Strategies.

State Sen. Chris McDaniel, R-Ellisville, paid roughly a third ($33,502) of his funds to Anedot, a fundraising service based in Louisiana. McDaniel also spent $2,156 on renting and maintaining his campaign bus.