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2014 Election Theme: Money in Politics

November 1, 2014 | David Donnelly , President

Here’s a killer fact: Just 42 people, fewer players than on an NFL team roster, have given about one-third of the total donations to super PACs this election cycle. That probably doesn’t surprise you. Our elections are increasingly a shouting match between a few wealthy Democrats and a few wealthy Republicans.

What’s different this cycle, though, is that the overwhelming amount of money being spent has made the spending itself a major issue in races across the country. Democratic attacks on the Koch brothers are well known. This cycle, though, Republican candidates have responded by blasting Democrats for their big-money backers.

As I told the Huffington Post, “We’ve been watching elections for a long time, and I’ve never seen the issue be so front and center in so many debates, particularly in the Senate, than what we’re seeing this year.”

There’s no doubt about money’s influence in politics. But this cycle, its impact on candidates’ messaging has become a major development in many campaigns.

1. In Top Races, Senate Debates Feature Money In Politics

The Koch brothers, Tom Steyer, Michael Bloomberg. In many of the top Senate races this cycle, the issue of money in politics and billionaire donors has made its way into candidate debates, the only place voters can see candidates face off on the issues. Here’s a sample:

  • “Folks, he’s not listening to you,” Sen. Mark Pryor said about Rep. Tom Cotton as he blasted Koch-tied spending in the race. “He’s listening to them. That applause is still ringing in his ear, and those dollar signs are still in his eyes.”
  • In South Dakota, Democrat Rick Weiland has made money in politics a central part of his campaign, even filming an anthem on the issue to the tune of “Wagon Wheel.” Bucking his national leadership, Republican Mike Rounds even offered a solution when pressed on the issue during a debate: “[W]ith regard to campaign finance reform, ladies and gentlemen, what we need is full disclosure.”
  • Iowa Senate candidate Joni Ernst responded to Rep. Bruce Braley’s attack on her big money supporters with, “This is from someone that’s being supported by the California billionaire extreme environmentalist who opposes the Keystone pipeline.”

Similar exchanges happened in debates in Kentucky, Louisiana, Kansas, and Virginia.

2. Even Mitch McConnell, Yes, Mitch McConnell, Has Jumped On The Issue

Sen. Mitch McConnell, who has famously said no one has ever lost an election based on money in politics, has repeatedly attacked his opponent for her campaign contributions. The day before McConnell led a filibuster against Sen. Tom Udall’s Citizens United constitutional amendment, his campaign blasted out an email with the subject line, “don’t let liberal elites buy this election.”

McConnell is not alone; other Republicans have criticized their opponents’ fundraising:

  • In North Carolina, House Speaker Thom Tillis made Sen. Kay Hagan’s decision to skip a Senate committee hearing for a “cocktail fundraiser” a central attack in October, bringing it up in a debate, in a TV ad, and through surrogates. Democrats responded, telling voters to “follow the money” in new ads about a toll lane bill in the state legislature.
  • American Crossroads and Crossroads GPS attacked Bruce Braley and Gary Peters for their support from billionaire Tom Steyer.
  • In Alaska, Republican Senate candidate Dan Sullivan asked Mark Begich to sign a “People’s Pledge” to limit outside money.

We’ve seen Republican and Democratic TV ads in Massachusetts, Colorado, and New Hampshire, just to name a few, questioning a candidate’s donations and their motives.

3. Increase In Spending By “Anti-Super PAC Super PACs”

For years, Every Voice Action and its predecessors have focused on electoral programs focused on money in politics. In 2012, Friends of Democracy won eight of the nine it engaged in that fall. This year, we got some company.

  • Every Voice Action and its partners Every Voice Maine and New York Friends of Democracy will spend $3.9 million on an electoral program in two U.S. Senate races, five U.S. House races, and five state Senate races in Maine and New York.
  • Following the 2012 success of Friends of Democracy, Professor Larry Lessig’s Mayday PAC made a big splash with its entrance into the field this year. The group will spend approximately $11 million on seven races. Its heavy spending in Michigan has forced Rep. Fred Upton to defend his record on the issue and go on the attack against Mayday.
  • CounterPAC, a new start-up, with a mission to get as many candidates as possible to agree to reject untraceable dark money, got public commitments from candidates in West Virginia, Colorado and Alaska.

This election cycle has also proven that this issue is not going away as an electoral issue. Hillary Clinton, and any Democrat running in 2016, will be forced to address it. So will any Republican running. The fact of the matter is voters are demanding a different system and the politicians are beginning to take notice.

David Donnelly

David Donnelly is the president of Every Voice and Every Voice Action.

Every Voice and Every Voice Center have recently come under new leadership. We will be expanding and diversifying our efforts to promote a democracy that works for all of us and responds to the voices of everyday people. Watch this space for specifics later in 2019.