BIG MONEY, BIG IMPACT IN STATE AND LOCAL ELECTIONS

Big money may have a bigger effect on state and local elections than federal ones. Most of my past posts on campaign finance have focused on spending on races for federal offices (here, here, here, and here). However, state and local races are less expensive and get less media attention, so some big money can have a really big impact. I have written about this before (here). Here are a couple more examples of big money’s role at the state and local level.

Missouri is one of the few states with no limits on campaign contributions directly to candidates. There are four candidates in the Republican primary for Governor. Each of the four has received over $1 million from a single source. One campaign has received almost $5 million from the candidate’s own fortune. In two cases, an individual or family (other than the candidate) has given a million or more to the gubernatorial candidate while also giving millions more to other candidates or political action committees (PACs). [1]

This big money is drowning out the voices of the average voter. It creates conflicts of interest for the candidate who is elected as these large donors have interests that are affected by policy decisions. One of the Missouri million-dollar donors is a strong advocate for repealing all Missouri taxes. He would clearly disproportionately benefit from steps in that direction while the average Missouri resident would suffer the loss of the government’s ability to support infrastructure and programming. Another of the million-dollar donors is a strong opponent of unions. Policies that weaken unions would benefit him as a business owner while hurting workers.

In the Washington, D.C., mayor’s race, the amounts aren’t as dramatic, but campaign donors of $1,000 or more are providing the bulk of campaign money. These large donors are not representative of the electorate; they are disproportionately white and male, and, of course, rich. Overall, for the three candidates in the 2014 race, two-thirds of all the money raised came from donors giving $1,000 or more. Less than 2% came from donors giving $50 or less – an amount that might be affordable for the average voter. [2]

While only 37% of D.C.’s population is white, 62% of donors to the mayoral race were white. In terms of gender, 69% of those giving more than $1,000 were male, although 54% of D.C.’s adults are women.

After the election, the winner created a PAC that took advantage of a loophole in election laws that allowed unlimited donations in non-election years. This Mayor’s PAC took in many $10,000 contributions, many from those with interests in policy and contracting decisions made by the city. An investigation into the PAC found that 11 of its largest donors received $70 million in city contracts.

Big campaign contributions by wealthy donors result in decisions and policies that disproportionately favor the white, male, wealthy, donor class. For example, Washington, D.C., has enacted a series of tax cuts, including a cut in the estate tax, that will largely benefit the wealthy, despite the city’s high poverty rate (18%) and high income inequality. The city also recently announced it will spend $55 million to build a new practice facility for the Washington Wizards basketball team. The wealthy team owner will contribute only $5 million to construction costs and an additional $10 million for community benefits. The city also gave $60 million in tax breaks to a consulting company to keep it from moving to Virginia. The company promised to hire 1,000 D.C. residents, but these jobs likely would have gone to D.C. residents in any case.

Big money is invading state and local elections as well as federal elections. It can have greater effects on the elections at the state and local levels due to smaller campaign spending and less media coverage. And its effects on government decisions and policies can be more immediate and easier to identify.

Subsequent posts will look at the invasion of secret money (where the true donor is obscured) into state and local campaigns. They will also present ways to address the problems of big and secret money in our elections within the constraints of current Supreme Court decisions (e.g., Citizens United and McCutcheon).

[1]       Miller, J., 7/20/16, “This is what happens when a state has no contribution limits,” The American Prospect (http://prospect.org/blog/checks/what-happens-when-state-has-no-contribution-limits)

[2]       McElwee, S., 6/23/16, “D.C.’s white donor class: Outsized influence in a diverse city,” Demos (http://www.demos.org/publication/dc%E2%80%99s-white-donor-class-outsized-influence-diverse-city)

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