(Mint Press)–Congressman Eric Cantor (R-VA) coasted to a 2010 victory, gaining 67 percent of the vote over his Democratic challenger, Rick Waugh. While Virginia’s 7th district has been historically more conservative, Cantor’s robust fundraising effort put him at a distinct advantage having raised more than $5 million compared to Waugh’s modest $147,000.
Big money corporate donors are nothing new in American Congressional elections, but the proliferation of out-of-district special interest groups contributing to campaigns is on the rise. For Cantor, donations from the small but influential American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) have played an important role in his electoral success. The pro-Israel group raised nearly $120,000 on his behalf in the 2010 campaign, a fraction of the $96 million dollars the group has spent indirectly on Congressional campaigns since 1990.
AIPAC, like other single issue lobby groups, is contributing to the growing trend of outside groups influencing elections across the U.S. For Cantor, 79 percent of his campaign funding came from groups located outside Virginia’s 7th district. The trend continued last week in Indiana when six-term Senator Dick Lugar lost the GOP primary to Richard Murdoch in a battle where much of the campaign funding came from out-of-state special interest groups.
Interest groups, generally advocating for a narrow range of policy interests, have funneled money into election campaigns to create legislation that is favorable to their membership. With the spiraling cost of running competitive political campaigns, highly partisan groups are influencing election outcomes and drawing candidate attention away from local constituent concerns.
Increase cost of campaigns opens door for special interest money
An increasing number of Congressional districts are following this pattern where, for example, in Ohio’s 9th district, 3 out of 4 campaign dollars are coming from groups and individuals located outside the district.
Experts label this a salient issue since the cost of running a competitive political campaign has increased markedly in recent years, with the average Congressional campaign costing candidates over $1.1 million, according to a 2008 U.S. News report. According to the same report, Senate races cost candidates a staggering average of $6 million.
Expensive television advertising, professional polling and website design have added to the costs of an already lengthy campaign season. While the bankroll of a candidate does not guarantee election, a strong correlation has been found between money spent and the success of a candidate in general elections.
The Center for Responsible Politics, a research group tracking the role of money in U.S. politics, found in 2008 that historically, the candidate who spends the most money on their election campaign won his seat 9 out of 10 times.
As a result, special interest groups that target congressional races are increasingly filling the funding needs, providing crucial campaign dollars in exchange for support on their group’s issues. The finding, according to NPR social science correspondent Shankar Vedantam, is troubling given the nature of interest groups that tend to be highly partisan, representing a narrow range of group member interests. Citing a recent article in the latest issue of American Politics Research, Vedantam continues, saying that “Along with that partisan spike comes a similar trend in political contributions: Donors are using their money to weigh in on ideological national issues, such as abortion, gay marriage and foreign policy, instead of focusing solely on local issues.”
Lax campaign finance rules following the 2010 Citizens United ruling, coupled with the increasing cost of running a competitive political campaign have opened up an important role for special interest groups to give candidates much-needed funding in exchange for support in Washington. The issues represented by the groups in the aforementioned report are often highly partisan and frequently do not reflect the concerns of local constituencies.
The rise of highly partisan single issue groups
According to the Federal Election Commision (FEC), citizens can contribute a maximum of $2,500 to a single Congressional candidate in an election cycle. However, unlimited soft money donations are considered a form of free speech, and thus are loosely regulated. Soft money donations, unlike direct donations to a candidate, are given to groups that advertise or work on behalf of a campaign. These donations were briefly regulated under the 2003 Bipartisan Campaign Reform act.
Popularly known as McCain-Feingold (the sponsors of the bill), the bill garnered broad bipartisan support in an effort to curb the influence of soft money contributions and “electioneering communications” on behalf of candidates. This meant that national parties could not spend money in ways that violate FEC rules for campaign spending.
Additionally, the bill regulated the frequency of political television ads in the runup to elections. While the effort was heralded by supporters as an important step toward curbing the influence of big money contributions, the 2010 Citizens United Supreme Court ruling quickly reversed many of the hard fought reforms, allowing unlimited, indirect contributions by special interests to political campaigns.
For example, the American Association for Retired Persons (AARP), a group claiming to represent 40 million retired Americans, has become one of the more effective lobbies in Washington, advocating mostly for health care related issues. Using member contributions, the AARP spends millions of dollars in membership funding to publish election guides, robo calls and television ads promoting candidates.
While AARP works to the benefit of many local constituencies, smaller groups representing a more myopic range of ideological issues continue to pour money into congressional and presidential campaigns. While there are thousands of single issue groups, two of the top contributors each elections cycle are the National Rifle Association (NRA) and the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC).
Pro-Israel and pro-gun lobbies are part of the growing number of single-issue groups that push candidates to support contentious wedge issues. As Barack Obama and presumptive GOP nominee Mitt Romney begin their election campaigns, donations by these groups as well as donations by semi-secretive political action committees (PACs) are expected to bring in millions of dollars for the candidates.
Super PACs and the presidential race
On Wednesday, the Democratic party announced that the Obama re-election campaign had raised $43.6 million in April, down from the $53 million haul in March. While both parties are emptying their coffers in a tit-for-tat game to match spending, political action committees, or “Super PACs”, play an important role- raising millions of dollars on behalf of the candidates in what is expected to be a tight race for the presidency this November.
Leading the way is the pro-Romney Restore Our Future PAC raising a reported, $51.9 million. The American Crossroads PAC linked to Karl Rove has raised $28 million for Romney as well. While not as well funded, the pro-Obama Priorities USA Action PAC raised $8.9 million through the end of March.
While PACs are open to contributions from any American, last month’s Federal Elections Commission report confirms that funding for these PACs is highly concentrated, coming from a handful of wealthy donors.
In April, a separate FEC report showed that billionaire casino magnate Sheldon Adelson contributed a total of $26.5 million to conservative Super PACs during this election cycle. This surpasses the record $23.7 million donated by the liberal businessman George Soros during the 2004 election cycle.
The role of special interest lobbies and super PACs has not gone unnoticed by the public, as there has been an increased citizen led push for major campaign finance overhauls.
The push for publicly financed elections
Following the Citizens United ruling, which allowed virtually unlimited special interest donations to elections campaigns, voters began calling for a move to publicly-financed elections in unprecedented number.
Charles Schumer (D-NY) is among a growing number of elected officials taking up the citizen call for reform. Commenting on the ruling in 2010, Schumer said, ”If there’s one thing that Americans from the left, right and center can all agree on, it’s that they don’t want more special interests in our politics.” This sentiment corresponds closely with overwhelming public opposition to the ruling, and more general opposition to increased special interest money in U.S. politics. A 2010 Washington Post/ABC News poll found that 80percent of Americans oppose the Citizens United ruling, with 65 percent saying they strongly oppose it.
Concrete reforms have been slow in coming, but the March 2012 Van Halland v. FEC ruling necessitating greater transparency in donor funding, was a major victory for reformers. The decisions requires candidates to disclose the source of donations totaling more than $10,000.
Although calls for a constitutional amendment overturning Citizens United are unlikely to come to fruition, Vermont, New Mexico and Hawaii have all passed state legislation calling for such an action. The issue of campaign funding could ultimately be one allowing states to assert their right to regulate campaign finance as they see fit. In Montana, the 2011 Western Tradition Partnership, Inc. v. Attorney General of Montana affirmed Montana’s right to regulate and limit campaign finances, a clear affront to the previous U.S. Supreme Court decision.