Money in politics is nothing new. William McKinley’s political fixer, Mark Hanna, famously said, “There are two things that are important in politics. The first is money, and I can’t remember what the second one is.” Hanna spoke at the end of the first Gilded Age of staggering inequality and government corruption. In this modern political age defined by Supreme Court cases like Citizens United, this is truer now than ever. It even impacts our state and local races here in Tennessee.
Most of us are familiar with the fact that the cost of national races ballooned in the past decade. The 2012 presidential campaign saw the first race to cost more than $2 billion and it was the first time neither candidate accepted any public financing or the limits that come with it. Further, it was the first presidential election after Citizens United which allowed around $600 million in super PAC donations for that election cycle, as well as many millions more to go to nonprofit “social welfare” groups, not required to disclose their donors.
At the state and local level, PACs and big donors do not operate on the same scale as national races, but they are no less influential on the outcome of races. As a result of efforts by conservative bundlers and big donors in election cycles over the last ten years to raise significant campaign funding for candidates they recruit, the cost of running races for certain seats on the Memphis City Council has ballooned. Since 2007, most contested campaigns for Super District 9 seats have seen spending in the range of $200,000-$300,000. Even running for Memphis City Council District 5 has recently become a very expensive proposition. According to recent candidates for that seat, the average campaign cost for District 5 races prior to 2007 had been under $100,000. However, in 2007, now Mayor Jim Strickland spent well into six figures in his successful run for the District. The 2015 City Council five-way race for Strickland’s open seat saw spending topping $500K, mainly due to one candidate who spent over $300,000 alone. The two best financed candidates then ended up going to an expensive runoff beyond the initial election. Ultimately, that race was won by the candidate with the largest backing, but the least experience in public service.
The essential problem is that money is needed to drive name recognition and turnout. Particularly in primaries or during local elections, it can be challenging to get voters to show up. Name recognition is very significant in local races. Activities like canvassing, phone banking and direct mailings are essential to reach voters, educate them on the candidate and encourage them to get them to the polls. Campaign funding is necessary to make sure all of these operations are carried out.
Money in politics isn’t going anywhere and it doesn’t mean that change cannot happen. As one recent local candidate noted, money isn’t inherently bad; “however, what matters is who is giving it and why.”
When Republican super-donors are giving $300,000-$400,000 to one City Council candidate, what is the way forward for progressive candidates without access to that kind of money? Ironically, just as recent Presidential races showed us the excesses of a Citizens United world, these races also show us how we can combat the effect of big money donors. The sort of online small dollar fundraising employed by Sen. Sanders and President Obama can be employed to level the playing field in local races. Tens of thousands of small donations were made in those races, allowing the grassroots to support successful progressive candidates. Indeed, one of the objectives of Future901 is to build this kind of fundraising structure to help with progressive races locally.
Using the 2015 District 5 race as an example, if 5,000 people were willing to give $50 each to help fund one local progressive candidate, that progressive candidate would raise $250,000 and would be in a position to compete with well-funded candidates.
Former State Senator Beverly Marrero notes that Republicans have done a better job locally of getting their grassroots to prioritize consistent giving. As Sen. Marrero has noted, some donors will give consistently because they are trying to gain access. She observed interestingly that female donors often do not seem to understand this and invariable give lesser amounts. She said the most generous female donors she knows personally are former Republicans turned Democrat. The Republicans have spent decades grooming candidates and cultivating donors. Observed Sen. Marrero“We all have a responsibility to work for the best candidates possible and money is a big part of that this day and age.”
Future901 is dedicated to supporting and electing progressive candidates at the state and local level. One of the ways that we are doing that is by building a donor base to support progressive candidates. In recent elections, good progressive candidates have been outspent by a small group of conservative moneyed interests. Acting together, we can level the playing field. You can help by making a one time or recurring contribution via our ActBlue account at: https://secure.actblue.com/contribute/page/future901 .