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The Top Money-in-Politics Stories of 2015

December 30, 2015 | Adam Smith

The influence of money in politics is so embedded in our culture today that even Tim Allen’s “Last Man Standing” sitcom made jokes about Hillary Clinton’s fundraising this year. Here’s my list of the top campaign finance stories of 2015.

(And make sure to check out lists from the Campaign Legal Center and the Brennan Center.)

  • Voters in Maine and Seattle approved ballot initiatives to give everyday people a bigger voice in politics.

In Maine and Seattle this year, voters sent an unmistakable message that voters can win big, serious changes to our campaign-finance laws in the post­-Citizens United era.

By wide margins in both places, voters adopted small-donor-driven systems that will replace candidates’ hunt for big-money contributions with a focus on gathering grassroots support and small donations from the people they seek to represent. The campaigns were led on the ground by a diverse set of local organizations, with help from national partners like Every Voice.

Maine and Seattle showed that we don’t have to throw up our hands and give up on our democracy. We can come together and create a better future. Look for more wins like these in 2016.

There were good wins in other places too–Montana passed a law to address dark money, and “although challenges to disclosure provisions have continued to proliferate, courts have been overwhelmingly supportive of such laws.”

  • Democratic presidential candidates all agree on Fight Big Money Agenda

Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Sen. Bernie Sanders, and former Gov. Martin O’Malley have all released bold, comprehensive plans to address our broken political system and empower everyday people in politics. It may not be surprising that Democrats support these policies, but it’s new for every one to publicly release such a bold platform. And, importantly, empowering small donors through public financing is at the center of all three.

The plans are all similar to the “Fight Big Money Agenda” released this summer by a coalition of democracy groups.

It’s important, going forward, that the candidates talk about this issue on the stump, in interviews, with their supporters, and in debates. As new polling we released last week found, candidates—especially Hillary Clinton—can benefit by talking about these solutions to our broken system. They should also release updates to the plans that address how they’ll implement them if elected.

  • The Billionaire Primary and The 158 Families Deciding Our Election

The Adelson Primary. The Koch Primary. The Paul Singer primary.

With a presidential election on track to break all records, candidates did all they could to court billionaire donors who could write seven-figure checks, with those endorsements getting breathless news coverage.

As the Los Angeles Times’ Doyle McManus reported in April, “The most important players aren’t the candidates; they’re the mega-donors. In American politics, money talks. That’s always been true, of course. But this year, we’re reaching new lows: The Republican race has devolved into a battle among headstrong billionaires, each with a pet candidate.”

Ahead of the most recent Republican debate in Las Vegas, “multiple” candidates held private meetings with casino mogul Sheldon Adelson. In fact, the debate was hosted at his hotel.

As the New York Times reported earlier this year, just 158 families make up over half of the contributions to presidential candidates this cycle. A group of people that could fit on a Boeing 747 is deciding who gets to run for the country’s highest office. And they don’t look like the rest of us. They are “overwhelmingly rich, white, and male,” the Times reported.

And as we found in analysis this summer, just three zip codes around Central Park in Manhattan—incredibly wealthy and overwhelmingly white neighborhoods—donated more money in first half of the year than every single majority African-American zip code combined.

These donors aren’t reflective of the diversity of America and their priorities don’t represent the priorities of the rest of the country. The question is, how will that disparity impact the policies candidates advocate for if elected?

  • Jeb Bush raised $100 million for his campaign and has nothing to show for it (or does he?).

Testing the spirit, if not the letter of the law, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush attended over 60 fundraisers for Right to Rise, the super PAC created to boost his campaign, before declaring his intention to run. By the end of June, the group reported it had raised $100 million. It was a “shock and awe” campaign meant to discourage other candidates from running, but it made no direct hits.

The group has spent millions on ads so far to boost the former governor, but they have little to show for it. He’s only at single digits in recent polls in Iowa and New Hampshire. Donald Trump, who has so far only spent about $250,000 on ads, leads the former governor by 30 points in some polls.

Several people in Washington’s pundit class have taken this, along with the failures of Govs. Scott Walker and Rick Perry (who had their own wealthy benefactors), to mean, “you can’t buy an election,” a reductive interpretation about the concerns people have about money in politics.

In truth, Jeb’s failure (so far—nobody has even voted yet) says more about Jeb’s weakness as a candidate than the power of money. And the wealthy donors funding the primary get to decide who runs and who’s viable. Those wealthy donors are not reflective of America at large, but will continue having more influence than most Americans. Money is, and will remain, a huge barrier to entry for people up and down the ballot who want to run for office.And just because you have a super PAC it doesn’t make you a good or standout presidential candidate. If Jeb drops out, the rest of the candidates will go hat-in-hand to his backers begging for support, backers with different priorities than the rest of America.

  • Presidential candidates are breaking—or barely following—the rules without consequence

As I mentioned above, Jeb attended 60+ fundraisers for his super PAC before announcing his presidential bid. He was clearly running for president, but delayed his bid to raise big bucks. And he wasn’t the only one, as Campaign Legal Center’s Paul Ryan wrote in March.

When it comes to coordination rules, “Candidates have become increasingly reliant and entwined with [outside groups], which can raise unlimited sums of money from most any source.” And don’t even get us started on Carly Fiorina.

Several candidates—Jeb Bush, Rick Santorum, Martin O’Malley, Marco Rubio, Hillary Clinton, to name a few—have faced Federal Election Commission (FEC) complaints for various violations.

And due to gridlock and dysfunction at the FEC, there’s effectively no cop on the beat heading into an election likely to shatter records for fundraising and spending.

  • Republican presidential candidates can’t stop talking about money in politics on the campaign trail.

“This culture of special interest access is a problem I plan to tackle as president.” – Jeb Bush

“Candidates make a decision. Whose agenda are they going to champion, the big-money moderate donors in New York and California or the grass-roots activists?” – Ted Cruz

“I don’t like a system where billionaires can decide who is going to be the next President.” – John Kasich

There are a lot of Republican presidential candidates and almost every one of them has decried the influence of “special interests” or lobbyists or big donors on the campaign trail this year.  Or, as the Washington Post has reported, money in politics is a “rising issue” in the primary and “voters are mad about mega-donors and it’s helping Trump and Sanders.”

The candidates’ solutions to the problem are pretty weak—or they’d make the problem they criticize worse—but it’s a sign that they’ve seen the same polling we have: Americans are angry about a system that rewards the wealthy at the expensive of everyone else and they want politicians who’ll change it.

In fact, just this week, Bush’s super PAC released a new TV ad in Iowa criticizing Rubio skipping security briefings to attend fundraisers.

  • Mitch McConnell lost a campaign finance fight in Congress—with the help of his Republican colleagues.

Sen. Mitch McConnell has long been known as the “Darth Vader” of campaign finance policy in Washington. Since the late 1980s, he’s done all he can to gut the rules to empower his big money friends and allies—having most recently tried (and failed) to get rid of contribution limits altogether through the McCutcheon v. FEC case.

This year, McConnell tried to sneak a provision into the must-pass omnibus spending bill that would remove the limit on how much money parties can spend in coordination with candidates. It would give big donors more direct influence in politics and blow a huge hole in the Swiss cheese that remains of such restrictions.

Basically no one went for it. Opponents included the usual suspects — Every Voice and other reform groups, a number of Democrats in Congress – but this year they were joined by House Republicans and conservative activists. It was unusually strong and united opposition that McConnell couldn’t overcome.

Unfortunately, other Republican proposals aimed at keeping the SEC and IRS from addressing secret money in politics were included, but it’s unclear if the provisions can stop the agencies from acting.

  • Small donors feel the Bern

Sen. Bernie Sanders could run for president, sure, but he’d never be able to compete with the vaunted financial network of the Clintons. Or so everyone thought. In fact, in the third quarter of 2015, the Vermont Senator’s campaign outraised the entire Republican field (not including super PACs). He almost matched Clinton that quarter. His average donation is $30.

This month, he reached two million contributions and Sanders “has already taken in more individual contributions than Obama did at this point in his 2008 campaign for president.

Can a candidate relying almost entirely on small donors win a billion-dollar election? Time will tell, but the internet, combined with a candidate like Bernie Sanders who can excite supporters, can definitely make a go of it–at least in a primary.

And here are some other stories worth mentioning:

  • The Supreme Court finds a campaign finance law they like—but only for judges. The Supreme Court, recently hostile to campaign finance regulations, upheld a Florida law that bans judges from soliciting contributions for their elections. For the justices, judicial elections are just different than others.
  • Doug Hughes delivered a message on money in politics with his gyrocopter. It’s a bird, it’s a plane, it’s a guy from Florida protesting money’s influence in politics with his gyrocopter. Doug Hughes, like many Americans, was tired of our corrupt campaign finance system so he flew his gyrocopter onto the Capital Lawn with a letter for each member of Congress. He’s currently awaiting sentencing for his “crime,” but with so much public anger about our broken political system, expect to see more acts of civil disobedience like this going forward (cc: Democracy Spring).
  • Wisconsin Republicans had problems following election rules, so they changed them. After Gov. Scott Walker’s failed presidential bid, he went back to Wisconsin and almost immediately started eviscerating the state’s campaign finance laws, making sure he and his colleagues would be less accountable to voters. They reworked the Government Accountability Board, historically seen as a gold-standard elections watchdog, raised contribution limits, and made it harder to track the big donors trying to influence politicians.
  • Ann Ravel picked a fight with her own agency. Outgoing FEC Chair Ann Ravel’s fearlessness exposed the many problems at the country’s elections watchdog. She wouldn’t be cowed, amid a conservative smear campaign, or criticism from other commissioners. She tried to open up the agency to the public and traveled the country to hear people’s concerns about money in politics. And, importantly, due to her leadership, the FEC is about to launch a new website that makes it easier to follow the money.  She won’t be chair of the agency in 2016, but we hope she’ll be just as outspoken.
  • Someone actually went to jail for breaking coordination rules. Earlier this year, a Virginia man pleaded guilty to violating coordination rules between a House candidate he worked for and an outside group working to help that candidate. If the FEC won’t do its job, maybe the DOJ will?

What are we missing?

Adam Smith

Adam Smith is Every Voice's communications director.