The spectacular crash of the Jeb! Bush campaign – an early dropout after his Super PAC raised and spent a historically high amount – has led to a chorus of voices noting that money must not mean much in politics if you can spend more than $100 million and fail to win a single primary or caucus. Most of those voices, to be sure, are opponents of any limits on campaign money, willing to seize on any evidence to bolster their position.
I view the role of money in politics through a different lens, even though I agree that in a presidential campaign money can’t necessarily buy you love. But it is absurd to rely on the Jeb! example to suggest money is either irrelevant or a weak factor at the presidential level.
The same week that Jeb announced his “shock and awe” strategy, a pledge to raise $100 million early, scaring other candidates out of the race or intimidating them into submission, Ted Cruz announced his own campaign had early pledges of $37 million for his own outside effort from four billionaires, including two brothers. Thus, in one day, with no fundraising effort, Cruz arrived as a serious contender, and that legitimacy helped him raise a slew of direct campaign money as well.
The ability to supplement a campaign with outside money, ostensibly but not actually “independent,” has given more candidates traction and staying power, complicating the usual process of winnowing out pretenders and weaker contenders to narrow the field early. One or two “sugar daddies” can do the heavy lifting on media advertising, providing an extra incentive for candidates to stay in a bit longer, especially given the early states’ reliance on proportional representation.
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For Marco Rubio, for example, early stumbles were cushioned by money from his longtime supporter, billionaire Norman Braman. In short, in the presidential process, money isn’t everything – but it still matters, especially the big money coming outside any contribution limits for the candidates themselves.
But there are more important points to make. The first is that the campaign money system matters more and more as you move down the political food chain from offices that get intense public and media attention to those that do not. So it matters more for the Senate elections than the presidential, the House elections than the Senate, and state legislative races more than congressional ones.
At the state legislative level, where campaigns are usually well below the radar and run fairly inexpensively by candidates, a relatively small sum can have a hugely magnified impact. The Koch brothers reportedly spent $3 million in the last Kansas state legislative primary elections, focusing on bumping off more moderate Republicans and replacing them with more conservative and radical ones, and had a huge impact. A similar effort worked dramatically a few years earlier in North Carolina.
The biggest impact on election outcomes, though, is probably on judicial elections. Large sums spent by conservative groups have had big influence on outcomes for state supreme courts and appeals courts in places like Wisconsin and North Carolina. Judicial elections have become just like elections for other offices, with the same rough and vicious campaigns; outside ad campaigns that vilify incumbents in retention elections or with direct head-to-head combat, can be very effective; and judges have serious impediments to raising money directly to counter the ad campaigns.
Judicial elections powerfully raise the other key point about the effects of big money on elections in America — their corrosively corrupting effect. Judges raise their money from those they know – which means primarily those who practice in front of them. And judges know that if they rule against big corporations or wealthy individuals, they might face multimillion-dollar campaigns against them by outside groups, often relying on “dark money,” not disclosed or easily traced. It would be naive to say that will have no impact on decisions.
At the same time, in the aftermath of Citizens United, Speech Now and McCutcheon, all decisions by the Supreme Court and the D.C. Circuit, leaders in Congress began to recruit big money aggressively, including putting out “menus” for donors, with prizes like private briefings with top party and committee leaders, or dinner with committee chairs of their choice, on a sliding scale for five- and six-figure donations. The direct and overt trade of money for access has become a way of life.
With sham “social welfare” groups operating as 501(c)4s under the IRS code pouring hundreds of millions in attack ads done without any disclosure of funders, lawmakers now are fearful of being hit with a blizzard of slime weeks before the election, when they cannot raise money to fight back. I have had many lawmakers recount the time a visitor came to the office and said something like, “I represent Americans for a Better America, they have more money than God and they really want this amendment. For someone who blocks them, who knows what they might do in the next election?”
With that implicit or explicit threat, with the stakes so high, and with groups like the coalition put together by the Koch brothers raising nearly $1 billion to invest in the 2016 campaign, much of it in House and Senate races, is it any wonder that lawmakers of both parties spend far more time raising money than legislating? Is that healthy for the system? Not to me.
So Bush’s campaign proves that money isn’t everything. But the reality is that money is a huge factor, and the system, with a regulatory regime shattered by Citizens United and its progeny, along with the failures of the Federal Election Commission and the IRS, is in crisis.
Norman Ornstein is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute and co-author of “It’s Even Worse Than It Looks.” He wrote this for InsideSources.com.