“Stuffy old men” and campaign finance

"Stuffy old men" and campaign finance

Even as they acknowledge and lament the public’s perception that theirs is the party of “stuffy old men,” Republican leaders looked this week to give stuffy old men — or at least those with a lot of money — a larger and louder voice in their party and in American politics.

The GOP’s “Growth and Opportunity Project” report, a sometimes blunt self-exam that many call the Republican “autopsy” of the party’s 2012 losses, calls for lifting all limits on campaign contributions, It also doubles down on the party’s hostility toward a landmark law named for its 2008 presidential standard-bearer, Arizona Sen. John McCain.

The report argues that contribution limits and other fundraising restrictions imposed by the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act — popularly known as McCain-Feingold — are choking state and local Republican organizations while allowing “independent” SuperPACs and politically active non-profit “social welfare” organizations to collect six- and seven-figure gifts from corporations and wealthy individuals. It suggests that the party enlist the help of ALEC, the American Legislative Exchange Council, in a campaign to lift the limits and dismantle other campaign finance laws.

There are multiple problems with this analysis.

First, Republicans at the state level are thriving, not choking, under contribution limits. As the GOP report also points out, 30 states now have Republican governors, the most in 12 years, and Republicans control 27 state legislatures, 10 more than Democrats.

Second, figures compiled by the non-partisan Center for Responsive Politics indicate that just one-fourth of one percent of all Americans contribute more than $200 to candidates, parties or PACs during a given election cycle. Fewer still, just one-sixteenth of one percent, exceed the $2,600 limit on individual donations to federal candidates and even fewer than that get to the $10,000 cap on contributions to state parties.

That leaves a tiny sliver of the electorate, personified by stuffy old men like 2012 SuperPAC funders Sheldon Adelson and Foster Friess, who are able and willing to write the outsized checks the GOP covets. If Republicans want to change their image, they need to lower, not raise, the profile of these donors in their party.

Third, ALEC, a mostly corporate-financed and dominated coalition of state legislators and business executives and lobbyists, is hardly the sort of ally to help Republicans broaden their base and repair their image. Through its support for unneeded Voter ID laws, and its opposition to public financing of campaigns and campaign finance disclosure requirements, ALEC already works to increase the influence of the rich and powerful. Americans are increasingly getting the message that ALEC’s “model” bills are conceived and driven by corporate interests, not the public interest.

The fact is that contribution limits push both parties to move beyond the usual, small pool of donors. If you can only accept a limited amount of money per person, the only way to raise more money is to recruit more people. Given free rein to collect unlimited donations, both parties will naturally focus on — and listen to — big donors, the folks whose influence already far exceeds their numbers.

If the Republicans, and the Democrats too, really want to be defined as a party of working, middle class Americans, they’ll get busy repairing the presidential public financing system that was used in every campaign from 1976 through 2008 and implementing a similar system for House and Senate contests.

Public financing limits the clout of big donors, giving the rest of us a better chance to be heard. It takes our modest donations — $10, $25, $50, $100 — and supplements them with grants of public money that permit parties and candidates to run and win without relying on stodgy old men.