Imagine running for Congress against Michelle Obama. No, the first lady hasn’t declared her interest, but if she did, she’d immediately be a formidable candidate. The reasons are obvious: Mrs. Obama would start with universal name recognition, an immediate following on social media, and a vast national fundraising network that would quickly and easily raise her the millions of dollars she’d need to run a campaign.
Now imagine that candidate Michelle Obama asked all of the candidates to limit their fundraising to only small donations. Campaign donors, even independently of you, wouldn’t be allowed to spend more than $1,000 urging voters to support you for whatever reason. Who would win the race if all of the candidates agreed to those rules? The former FLOTUS would, no doubt.
Therein lies the problem with so-called campaign finance “reform.” Those pushing changes to campaign laws tend to favor laws that work to their own benefit. One only needs to look to the recent Democratic primary in Maryland’s Eighth Congressional District to see a real-life example.
Not All Campaign Assets Are Financial
Wealthy wine dealer David Trone spent more than $12 million of his fortune trying to win the race, only to be defeated by Jamin Raskin, a Maryland state senator and law professor at American University whom Trone outspent by about six to one. Finishing third in the field was another high-profile entrant, Kathleen Matthews, a long-time DC-area television reporter and wife of MSNBC host and former Tip O’Neill press secretary Chris Matthews. Raskin won with about 34 percent of the vote, to Trone’s 27 percent and Matthews’ 24 percent. Other candidates trailed.
The obvious lesson is all that money couldn’t get Trone elected. But let’s dig beyond that obvious lesson.
Trone entered the race as a complete unknown politically. Being able to spend a lot of money—his own money—enabled him to compete and come in second in a race against persons who started with far more name recognition and much stronger political networks. While Trone’s money didn’t get him the win, it did help make the race more competitive, and gave voters a chance to seriously consider his candidacy.
Meanwhile, Raskin and Matthews had enormous non-monetary advantages that are by no means the result of their own political skills (which is not to denigrate their skills). Matthews, obviously, is from a well-connected political family, and as a TV reporter had high name recognition and visibility.
Restricting Money Enhances Existing Political Networks
While far fewer people outside of the Beltway knew of Raskin, he was also connected. His father, Marcus Raskin, was an aide to President Kennedy and, among other things, went on to co-found the Institute for Policy Studies, a major player in liberal politics that bills itself as “Washington’s first progressive multi-issue think tank.” His wife, Sarah Raskin, was formerly Maryland’s commissioner of financial regulation, and was later appointed by President Obama to serve as deputy secretary of the Treasury.
Trone, meanwhile, was the son of a schoolteacher mom and an unsuccessful farmer dad who eventually lost the farm. Matthews went to Stanford University and Raskin to Georgetown and Harvard universities, and both then entered professions that gave them relatively unique opportunities to build on their pre-existing political networks.
Trone attended the more mundane Furman University and started a business. Not that Trone entered the 2016 campaign as a political naïf. He hosted a huge fundraiser for President Obama at his home in 2015, and another featuring Bill Clinton in 2014. But he did not have the deep political roots and networks that his two principal opponents inherited. He also did not start out with name identification.
The non-monetary advantages both of Trone’s opponents brought to the table are enormous, and not necessarily related to their own efforts or their likely effectiveness as a member of Congress. Eliminating or restricting money in campaigns will entrench those types of pedigrees in office, and make it harder for persons with careers like Trone’s to enter public life.
The Best Campaign Finance System Favors…Me
Nonetheless, in another irony, Trone was big on criticizing political spending, Super PACs, and the Supreme Court decision in Citizens United v. FEC. Or maybe it’s not so ironic. Trone bragged about limiting contributions to his campaign to just $10, but he could do that precisely because he was rich.
Law professor Raskin wasn’t going to be pouring eight-figure sums of personal wealth into his campaign. If every single eligible voter in the district had given Raskin $10, Trone still would have outspent him better than two to one. With the ability to spend his own fortune, independent spending by Super PACs would be of little value to Trone. His best chance to win was to keep all Super PACs out of the race and try to keep campaign contributions to any candidates as low as possible, so he could use his own money to outspend them.
But Raskin, too, is a “reformer,” who has long supported government financing of campaigns. In his academic works, he has argued for government grants to subsidize campaigns. Just as the campaign finance system Trone supported (limits on Super PACs and contributions) favored his chances, government financing will usually favor candidates like, well, Jamie Raskin: people who know the system, have strong pre-existing political networks to draw on, and have careers that allow them time to campaign and build political capital. If Trone and Raskin had both been limited to a modest grant of government funds for their campaigns, Raskin would have won much more easily.
Then there was Kathleen Matthews. Obviously, she joined the ritual two minutes of hate against Citizens United, which is becoming a litmus test for any “progressive” seeking elective office. But her solution was a system in which government would match small contributions at a rate of six to one. Who likely benefits from that system? Why, candidates like Kathleen Matthews, who bragged about how she had parlayed her name recognition and high public profile, based on her years in TV, into lots of small donations.
Campaign Finance Regulations Are about Power
In other words, each of the three major candidates favors a campaign finance system that would favor himself or herself. Cue Claude Raines.
So perhaps the biggest lesson of Maryland’s Eighth District is not that spending doesn’t determine winners and losers (although it doesn’t), nor that spending is necessary to get new voices into the system (it often is), nor that spending can make races less equal, but it can also make them more equal (it frequently does).
Rather, the big lesson may be that the politicians who write our laws have a strong self-interest in writing laws that benefit them. This is not to say that is always their intent. I don’t know Trone or Matthews, but I’ve known Raskin for years, and consider him a man of sincerity and integrity. It is to say that politicians will naturally tend to think the type of campaign system that helps them get elected is the type of system we should have.
Campaign finance regulation, in other words, is about power. Power over you as members of the electorate to contribute to electing candidates you believe in, to hear voices you may want to hear, and to spend money to promote your political beliefs; power over opposing candidates and parties whose fundraising tactics will work against those with the power to pass laws; power to limit the propagation of ideas that those in power do not want to hear or have others hear.
Fortunately, the people who ratified the First Amendment had a solution to all this self-dealing and effort to suppress dissenting views: “Congress shall make no law… abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press….” Maybe we just need to build up the courage to live by such ideals.