Money Talks: Campaign Finance Insights from the Nebraska Primary Elections
Money plays a significant role within the American political process. From candidacy to incumbency, money directly impacts how elected officials get into public office, how they vote once in office, and what policies they choose to prioritize.
Money is a lifeline for many elected officials who want to stay in office and hold onto power. Big money donors fund elected officials’ political campaigns and in return, those donors expect to have the ear of the elected official in a quid-pro-quo relationship. The pay-to-play dynamic means our elected officials do the bidding of the highest bidder, rather than serve the interest of their constituents. Money in politics interferes with the integrity of political processes, institutions, and even constituents’ faith in democracy.
Campaign finance reform has long been a struggle, with advocates facing a myriad of varying interests, policies, and court rulings that dictate what said reform looks like.
This brings us to Nebraska, which right now faces an election cycle that has resulted in at least $51 million in campaign spending, more than double of what was spent in 2020.
While each state has their own limits and laws governing campaign finance, there are currently no limits on donations from individuals or non-individuals in Nebraska, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. The Cornhusker State is just one of five states to not have any restrictions on how our campaigns are funded, making the need for campaign finance reforms even greater.
Money talks, so it’s no surprise the top three candidates in the Republican gubernatorial primary — Jim Pillen, Charles Herbster, and Brett Lindstrom — also raised the most money according to the Nebraska Accountability and Disclosure Commission. And though these candidates may have appealed to voters via their platforms, having a war chest of money drowns out exposure to alternative candidates who may not have the same level of resources for candidate outreach and media exposure.
The trend of the candidate with the most money winning elections also occurred in the Secretary of State primary, where Bob Evnen considerably outraised his runner-up, Robert Borer. Corporations were among the largest donors to Evnen’s opponent, Jim Pillen, including several businesses specializing in ethanol production (KAAPA Ethanol Holdings and Commodity Solutions) and sports betting (Arizona Off Track Betting).
In the gubernatorial and Secretary of State primary, both individual and PAC donors gave to multiple campaigns. Donors often hedged their bets by splitting donations between two campaigns (even across party lines), indicating an understanding that money can have an influence over candidates and wanting to exert that power.
Additionally, it was not uncommon, especially among gubernatorial candidates, to see individuals donating large sums of money to their own campaign. Self-financing was done by all the top three candidates, with Herbster donating over four million and Pillen donating one million to their respective campaigns. On the other side of the aisle, Carol Blood, the sole Democratic gubernatorial candidate, donated just $100 to her campaign, relying heavily on contributions from individuals.
From these insights, we can see the importance of money within elections. Looking at the donor information from Nebraska’s primary races tells us a lot about how individuals and organizations contribute to campaigns. Understanding this behavior and how campaigns are financed can help us to better navigate reforms.