Wealthy individuals and corporations are buying and corrupting our candidates for public office and our policy making processes like never before. Congressional races, state ballot questions, and possible 2024 presidential candidates are all raising record amounts of money. (See this previous post for some details.) This is bad for democracy.

(Note: If you find my posts too long or too dense to read on occasion, please just read the bolded portions. They present the key points I’m making and the most important information I’m sharing.)

Most of this record amount of money is spent on advertising and much of that is negative advertising, i.e., attacking, undermining, discrediting, and demeaning the opposing candidate, even lying about them. One effect of all the negative ads is that they tend to depress turnout (e.g., why bother to vote for the better of the flawed candidates) and to undermine faith in our elected officials and the government. This undermines democracy and citizens’ belief in democracy.

Of particular concern, is that a big chunk of the huge amount of money being spent on our elections is coming from a relatively few individuals and corporations. A few dozen billionaires will spend over $100 million on the 2022 elections. They and the corporations they are connected with want policies that will reduce their taxes and provide other benefits to them. The 2017 tax cut bill was very directly the result of these big donors telling Trump and Republicans in Congress that they wanted a big tax cut or their donations to 2018 campaigns would be significantly curtailed. This quid pro quo is corrupt; it’s a kickback scheme.

Twenty-seven billionaires have given $89 million to the two Republican congressional super PACs, nearly 50% or half of the money they’ve raised for the 2022 elections. A few have given $20 million or more. Nineteen billionaires have given $26 million to the two parallel Democratic PACs, which is 17% of the money they have raised. For both parties, the bulk of the money came from people in the finance and investment business. These billionaires are also engaged in other political spending. For example, Peter Thiel, the billionaire co-founder of PayPal, who is openly anti-democracy and anti-government, has spent $15 million helping J. D. Vance win the Republican Senate primary in Ohio and $13.5 million helping Blake Masters win his Arizona Senate primary. [1] [2]

Back in the 2020 elections, billionaires collectively spent $1.2 billion, which was roughly one-tenth of all spending, despite being only 0.01% of all donors contributing over $200 (i.e., 1 out of every 10,000 donors). In 2020, the billionaires spent 40 times what they spent in 2010, due to the Supreme Court’s Citizens United and other decisions that now allow unlimited spending in our supposedly democratic elections. The political spending and influence of the billionaires has been growing election after election.

Large amounts of corporate money are also flowing into political campaigns, often through intermediary groups that make it hard to trace the connection between specific donors and specific recipients. Therefore, it is hard to hold the corporations accountable for the policies of the candidates they’re supporting. For example, eight corporations, who publicly committed to covering travel expenses for employees who needed to travel to obtain reproductive care, nonetheless have, since 2018, given almost $8 million to three Republican groups that have helped elected Governors, Attorneys General, and legislators who have worked to restrict abortion rights. The corporations are: Pfizer ($3 million), Comcast ($2.2 million), Microsoft, Citigroup, Uber, and Bank of America (between $800,000 and $400,000), and lesser amounts from Lyft and Yelp. [3]

Fifteen corporations, who publicly committed to covering travel expenses for employees who needed to travel to obtain reproductive care, nonetheless have political action committees that have given $2 million to members of Congress who voted against the Women’s Health Protection Act, which would have protected access to reproductive care. The top givers (between $501,000 and $113,000) are PricewaterhouseCoopers, Google, Microsoft, Wells Fargo, Johnson & Johnson, JPMorgan Chase, and Meta (Facebook’s parent corporation).

Frequently, these large donors, individuals and corporations, make significant efforts to avoid being identified and linked to the candidates they’re supporting. For example, the Conservative Americans Political Action Committee (PAC) filed its statement of organization with the Federal Election Commission on July 11. Then, between July 19th and 24th, it spent $2.4 million in Republican U.S. House primary races in Missouri, Tennessee, and Arizona. Because of its late registration, it’s not required to disclose its donors until August 20, weeks after the voting in the primary elections it was working to influence. [4] Therefore, voters didn’t know who was trying to influence their votes.

An insidious strategy that is seeing increased use is the spending of large sums of money by Political Action Committees (PACs) and other political groups aligned with one party in the other party’s primaries. Democratic-aligned groups have spent nearly $44 million in Republican primaries for congressional seats and governorships. They are promoting more radical candidates that Democrats think will be easier to beat in the final election. Some of the downsides of this strategy are that it doesn’t always work, that it diverts funds from Democratic candidates, and that it promotes divisive, fringe positions. [5] Similarly, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) and its super PAC, heavily funded by Republican donors and the endorser of over 100 Republican candidates who are 2020 election deniers, is spending roughly $20 million in Democratic primaries. It is opposing progressive Democratic candidates and supporting more conservative alternatives.

The amount of outside money in primaries, particularly across party lines, is very unusual if not unprecedented. Given the low voter turnout in primaries for congressional seats, a few million dollars can have a significant effect on the outcome. [6]

In conclusion, the large amount of money being spent on campaigns in supposedly democratic elections is corrupting. When candidates receive large sums of money, it changes who they meet with, who they listen to, and how they weigh competing interests when making decisions on how to vote on legislation once they’re in office. It changes which issues get addressed and what legislation gets written. It means politicians have strong incentives to act in support of their wealthy donors rather than in support of the average Americans who are, nominally, their constituents. This is corruption – money given to candidates’ campaigns changes their behavior when they’re in office.

For example, Senator Joe Manchin (D-WV) refused, along with Senator Kyrsten Sinema (D-AZ) and all the Republicans in the Senate, to increase taxes on wealthy individuals and corporations as part of the recently passed Inflation Reduction Act, despite strong support for this among the public. [7] The obvious explanation for these Senators’ refusal is that they were being responsive to their wealthy donors rather than to the constituents who voted for them. (More detail on Sinema’s unusually blatant apparent quid pro quo corruption is here.)

Among other things, this means that economic inequality is likely to continue to increase in the U.S. It also means that wealthy campaign donors will have even more money to invest in future campaigns – and it is an investment, because favorable tax and other laws put far more money in their pockets than they spend on their campaign contributions, as the Senator Sinema examples makes clear. This is, in effect, a corrupt kickback scheme.

Furthermore, the exorbitant cost of a congressional campaign changes who runs for these seats. Given that in a contested race you need a minimum of $10 million to run a US Senate campaign or $2 million for a House race, who can afford to run is extremely skewed – it’s not your average citizen! This gives incumbents a huge advantage, as it often means that no one runs against them. As a result, Members of Congress are currently older than they’ve ever been with 23% of members over 70, up from 16% in 2012 and 8% in 2002. [8]

My next post will describe steps to rein in the harmful effects of current campaign spending.

[1]      Stancil, K., 7/18/22, “Just 27 billionaires have spent $90 million to buy GOP Congress: Report,” Common Dreams (https://www.commondreams.org/news/2022/07/18/just-27-billionaires-have-spent-90-million-buy-gop-congress-report)

[2]      Rice, W., Tashman, Z., & Clemente, F., July 2022, “Billionaires buying elections,” Americans for Tax Fairness (https://americansfortaxfairness.org/issue/report-billionaires-buying-elections/)

[3]      Datta, S., 8/2/22, “Corporate donations to GOP political groups boosted candidates behind anti-abortion rights laws in states,” Open Secrets (https://www.opensecrets.org/news/2022/08/corporate-donations-to-gop-political-groups-boosted-candidates-behind-anti-abortion-rights-laws-in-the-states/)

[4]      Giorno, T., 8/3/22, “ ‘Pop-up super PAC spent over $2.4 million in weeks leading up to three states’ GOP congressional primaries,” Open Secrets (https://www.opensecrets.org/news/2022/08/pop-up-super-pac-spent-over-2-4-million-in-three-states-gop-congressional-primaries-in-three-weeks/)

[5]      McCarty, D., 7/15/22, “Democrats spend millions on Republican primaries,” Open Secrets (https://www.opensecrets.org/news/2022/07/democrats-spend-millions-on-republican-primaries/)

[6]      Sammon, A., 7/14/22, “AIPAC has taken over the Democratic primary process,” The American Prospect (https://prospect.org/politics/aipac-has-taken-over-the-democratic-primary-process/)

[7]      Dusseault, D., & Lord, B., 7/19/22, “Joe Manchin just proved why we need the OLIGARCH Act,” Common Dreams and the Patriotic Millionaires Blog (https://www.commondreams.org/views/2022/07/19/joe-manchin-just-proved-why-we-need-oligarch-act)

[8]      Giorno, T., 9/15/22, “Gen Z candidate Karoline Leavitt outraised ‘establishment’ candidate in lead-up to her win in New Hampshire’s GOP House primary,” Open Secrets (https://www.opensecrets.org/news/2022/09/gen-z-candidate-karoline-leavitt-outraised-establishment-candidate-in-lead-up-to-her-win-in-new-hampshires-gop-senate-primary/)


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