If Republicans succeed in keeping the House in November, it will have been bought for them by corporations and the rich – quite literally.
President Trump recast the Republican Party as a vehicle for the forgotten man. But these putative populists passed a $1.5 trillion tax cut that, according to a poll this month for the Republican National Committee, is now seen, by a 2-to-1 margin, as a benefit to “larger corporations and rich Americans” over the middle class. And now these same friends of the little guy are running a campaign for the House bankrolled almost entirely by corporate interests and those who can afford to write four-figure checks to politicians.
Records show House Republican incumbents in seats targeted by Democrats are getting almost all their campaign funds from large contributors (often those who donate $2,700 or $5,400) and political action committees. Only a tiny fraction comes from those who give $200 or less.
For example, Reps. Carlos Curbelo (Fla.), Kevin Yoder (Kan.), Ann Wagner (Mo.), Tom MacArthur (N.J.), Vern Buchanan (Fla.), Mario Diaz-Balart (Fla.) and Trey Hollingsworth (Ind.) all get less than 1 percent of their campaign cash from small donations.
The Center for Responsive Politics looked at all competitive contests and found that Republicans in House races receive 10 percent of contributions in small donations, compared with 21 percent for Democrats. The Senate is nearly identical, at 11 percent and 21 percent.
As the campaign-finance reform group End Citizens United points out, the disparities in competitive races are often particularly stark. Vying for House Speaker Paul D. Ryan’s seat in Wisconsin, Democrat Randy Bryce gets 71.06 percent of his funds from small donors; Republican Bryan Steil is at 5.82 percent. Veteran Rep. Pete Sessions (R-Tex.) gets 0.91 percent from small donors, while Democratic challenger Colin Allred gets 19.17 percent. In Ohio, Rep. Troy Balderson (R) gets 8.96 percent from small donors, a fraction of Democratic challenger Danny O’Connor’s 64.87 percent.
Some of the most vulnerable Republicans do almost entirely without small donors: Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (Calif.), 2.29 percent; Rep. Mike Coffman (Colo.), 5.5 percent; Rep. Peter J. Roskam (Ill.), 4.75 percent; and Rep. Bruce Poliquin (Maine), 1.08 percent. Rep. Mike Bishop (R-Mich.) gets 66 percent of his funds from PACs.
Contributing to these huge disparities is the current political environment, in which Democratic voters’ terror of Trump has caused an outpouring of small donations for challengers, and Republican incumbents, without a lot of grass-roots energy, placing extra reliance on fat cats.
Among non-incumbents, 20 percent of donations to Democratic House candidates comes from small donors, compared with only 6 percent for Republican candidates, the CRP finds. (In the Senate, it’s 27 percent to 9 percent.) Among incumbents, the small-donor disparity is narrower but still to the Democrats’ advantage.
Democrats now believe they can weaponize the Republicans’ dependence on corporate donors for control of the House. More than two dozen Democratic challengers in top races have made ads against corporate lobbyists, dark money and billionaire donors while touting their own refusal to take PAC money. End Citizens United reports that 32 candidates who have pledged not to take corporate PAC money have outraised their incumbent opponents. At least 14 of them still managed to bring in $1 million during the second quarter. (Fundraising for the third quarter, which ends this week, will be reported by Oct. 15.)
There is reason to think that money in politics, usually not a campaign issue, could resonate this year. A Washington Post-University of Maryland poll last year found that it was the No. 1 cause cited for causing dysfunction in politics. “Wealthy political donors” was the second-most-cited cause – ahead of people with extreme views, social media and the news media.
A poll commissioned in June by the George W. Bush Institute, the University of Pennsylvania’s Biden Center and Freedom House found that “big money in politics” tied with “racism and discrimination” as the top issues.
With that in mind, 164 House Democrats have co-sponsored a “By the People Resolution” from Rep. John Sarbanes (D-Md.) promising action on voting security, automatic voter registration, nonpartisan redistricting, ethics laws, lobbying limits, disclosure of secret campaign money and a constitutional amendment undoing the Citizens United ruling.
The resolution, introduced in June with the support of Democratic leaders, has zero chance of coming to a vote. It is meant to present voters with a choice for the next Congress: an anti-corruption agenda as the first order of business, or the best House money can buy.
Dana Milbank is a columnist with the Washington Post Writers Group.
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