Studies Show Big Donors Dominated Competitive 2014 Congressional Races

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Boston —With the 5th anniversary of the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision coming up on January 21st 2015, public interest organizations working to eliminate big money in politics released reports detailing the effects this verdict has had on our government and elections. Those groups, which include Common Cause, MassPIRG, Demos, MassVote, the League of Women Voters, Represent Us, and more, announced their findings on the steps of Ashburton Place, the building where candidates file papers to run for office.

Common Cause authored a report titled “Whose Government, Whose Voice?showing how unfettered political spending has blocked progress on solutions to key issues that large, bipartisan majorities of Americans support. These issues include stagnant wages, gun control, climate change, student debt, and net neutrality.

Pam Wilmot, Executive Director of Common Cause Massachusetts, said “In politics, as in life, he who pays the piper calls the tune.  As these studies show, wealthy donors and special interests are drowning out the voices of average Americans, resulting in inadequate solutions to the critical problems facing our nation. Until we reduce big money in politics, all the other issues we care about are in trouble.”

Wilmot and other speakers pointed to the need for a federal constitutional amendment to overturn the Citizens United decision, which opened the floodgates to even more big money in politics, full disclosure of donors to political expenditures, and a system of public funding to encourage small donations and discourage bank-rolling of political campaigns from wealthy special interests.

According to the Common Cause report, Walmart alone and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce spent $14.8 million and $35 million respectively in 2014 advocating against raising the minimum wage, even while 70% of Americans support a national increase.  The NRA spent more than $31.4 million in the last election cycle to drive off gun control reforms, even as 90% of citizens have expressed support for background checks. Similar data revealed that big money from the energy sector, major banks, and telecom industry have respectively blocked action on reducing carbon emissions, establishing refinancing plans for student debt relief, and efforts to keep the internet open for everyone.

Another study released today, co-authored by MassPIRG and Demos, is titled “The Money Chase: Moving from Big Money Dominance in the 2014 Midterms to a Small Donor Democracy.” This report focused on spending in the most recent federal elections, finding that the top two vote-getters in the 25 most competitive districts around the country in 2014 got 86 percent of their campaign dollars from individuals giving $200 or more. Only two of the 50 candidates surveyed in their research raised less than 70 percent of their individual contributions from big donors, and seven relied on big donors for more than 95 percent of their individual contributions.

“We stood out in the cold today as a symbol: because as citizens and voters, we are standing out in the cold. All too often, a small handful of deep-pocketed donors gets to determine who runs for office, what issues make it onto the agenda, and too frequently, who wins,” said Janet Domenitz, MASSPIRG’s Executive Director. “Since most of us can’t afford to cut a thousand dollar check to candidates for elected office, we need to counter the outsized influence of mega-donors by amplifying the voices of small donors.”

Other key findings of the PIRG-Demos study include that candidates for the U.S. House must raise approximately $1,800 a day for two years prior to Election Day in order to match the fundraising of the median House winner in the 2014 elections. Candidates for the U.S. Senate must raise $3,300 every day for the length of a six-year Senate term to match the 2014 median winner.

Both studies show how big money in politics filters out qualified, credible candidates from both parties who lack access to a network of large donors. This in turn gets us public officials catering more to their wealthy benefactors than to average constituents.

In order to counteract big money and the effects it has had, these groups advocate for the federal Government by the People Act. This bill would create a campaign matching system for small contributions with limited public funds, allowing grassroots candidates relying on small donors to compete with big money candidates. This type of program has already proven effective in Connecticut, New York City, and Maine. Once matching funds are factored in, candidates participating in the program raised more than 60 percent of their funds from small donors.  

“When campaigns are paid for by the ultra-wealthy, average citizens lose. In a democracy based on the principle of one person, one vote, small donors should be at the center of campaign finance – not marginalized by it,” concluded Wilmot.

Similar sentiments were expressed by each organization, all making a call to action to overturn Citizens United and empower average citizens in the democratic process.

READ the Common Cause report here.

READ the MassPIRG and Demos report here.