Politics is a rich person's pastime. The money involved for the highest-profile races is staggering. The personal commitments are a burden. It leaves many of us feeling impotent to do anything more than yell at the TV. Public financing — "getting money out of politics" — is the standard answer, and a good one, but it is not the only one.
Sarah Jones examines the costs and opportunities for The New Republic and finds a slow, but growing movement towards public financing. "Campaign finance reform is not typically framed as an inequality story, but it is one, she writes:
According to Demos, 27 states, counties, and cities now implement public financing of some kind. Public financing doesn’t necessarily keep big donors or outside money from influencing a race. But it does make it easier for low-income people to participate in the democratic process by supporting candidates who represent their interests. Candidates who opted into Seattle’s program ran on strong, progressive platforms that supported the city’s $15 minimum wage and brought attention to the city’s housing crisis. Two Latinx candidates eventually won election.
In races for other seats, however, candidates from low-income backgrounds find themselves stymied by other roadblocks. It takes time to run a campaign, and that’s something many low-income people can’t afford. In most states, employees aren’t protected from termination if they take time off work to run for office, and even if they win office, the salary varies wildly from state to state. “Sometimes these positions are part-time as well, and it’s not always feasible for folks who are living paycheck to paycheck to not only get that job as a legislator, but also to campaign,” Boldt explained. The situation is particularly complicated for candidates with children. “For example, people with small children need to provide care for their kids. And in a lot of places, campaign funds can’t be spent on childcare,” she added.
The hurdles are formidable, but not insurmountable.
Kerri Harris, a Democratic candidate for U.S. Senate in Delaware, works a full-time job as a community organizer in addition to campaigning for office. She has, at various points in her working life, cut grass and fried chicken at a convenience store. She told me that her experiences with financial hardship both motivate and complicate her campaign. “I actually had a look in running last summer. We put out feelers, had a number of meet-and-greets, people were excited about it. But when October came, I had to sit down and really re-evaluate,” she said. “I am a parent and I have responsibilities and I don’t make a lot of money.”
Eventually, Harris built a volunteer team for her challenging incumbent Senator Tom Carper in the September primary.
“At the same time I’m running this campaign, saying people shouldn’t be struggling, I’m not saying it as if it’s those people. I am those people, and they see it,” she tells Jones. Harris the candidate now attends fundraisers she could not afford to, let's face it, as a commoner.
In politics, the wealthy wield money as a weapon to attack opponents and defend what they intend to keep. Campaign finance reform would even the playing field, but candidates such as Harris first need power to un-rig the money game and ungerrymander districts drawn to be uncompetitive. Short of being born with preternatural fundraising skills, the way to win that power is better organizing.
Directly and through groups he funded, Art Pope, North Carolina’s own mini-Koch brother, threw nearly a million dollars at state Sen. John Snow’s district in the western mountains in the 2010 election. They targeted Snow with two dozen mass mailings. One, Jane Mayer wrote in The New Yorker, reminiscent of the infamous Willie Horton ad from 1988:
“The attacks just went on and on,” Snow told me recently. “My opponents used fear tactics. I’m a moderate, but they tried to make me look liberal.” On Election Night, he lost by an agonizingly slim margin—fewer than two hundred votes.
After the election, the North Carolina Free Enterprise Foundation, a nonpartisan, pro-business organization, revealed that two seemingly independent political groups had spent several hundred thousand dollars on ads against Snow—a huge amount in a poor, backwoods district. Art Pope was instrumental in funding and creating both groups, Real Jobs NC and Civitas Action. Real Jobs NC was responsible for the “Go fish!” ad and the mass mailing that attacked Snow’s “pork projects.” The racially charged ad was produced by the North Carolina Republican Party, and Pope says that he was not involved in its creation. But Pope and three members of his family gave the Davis campaign a four-thousand-dollar check each—the maximum individual donation allowed by state law.
Snow, whose defeat was first chronicled by the Institute for Southern Studies, a progressive nonprofit organization, told me, “It’s getting to the point where, in politics, money is the most important thing. They spent nearly a million dollars to win that seat. A lot of it was from corporations and outside groups related to Art Pope. He was their sugar daddy.”
Yet even after all that Pope money, the last Democratic senator standing in the far west, lost his seat by 161 votes in a district spanning 8 rural counties. If Democrats in those rural counties had mounted effective, coordinated get-out-the-vote programs, they might have turned out 200 more votes among those 8 counties to deny Pope his prize and hold that seat for Democrats. Snow could not compete with Pope's money. But he might have had local Democrats had "game."
Coincidentally, the district's Democrats are working on that with a series of trainings, including one starting as this post goes live. Organizers from South Carolina have come over the border to join them.
The point of the "For The Win" primer (below) is that winning tough races needn't require Pope-sized pockets or candidates with Obama-level charisma. Better organizing and planning can get the job done. It does right here:
With so many new post-November 2016 progressive activists in the campaign mix this year, and with so many Democrats running in normally uncompetitive districts, Democrat cannot afford for them to learn in the traditional way, by the seat of their pants over multiple election cycles. They need those skills NOW.
A poll from Quinnipiac University of registered voters shows Democratic Rep. Beto O'Rourke within single digits (47-44) of catching incumbent Sen. Ted Cruz in the Texas U.S. Senate race. (CNN has more detail here.) But registered voters is one thing. Turning out Democrats and independents is an other. That takes not just money, but skills. The redder the state, the more urgent the need and, likely, the larger the skills deficit among under-resourced counties.
After sending links to 210 Texas county chairs in December (I could find no contact info for the rest), over 50 downloaded "For The Win" within 48 hours.
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For The Win 2018 is ready for download. Request a copy of my county-level election mechanics primer at tom.bluecentury at gmail.