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Big Money Playing an Outsized Role in Maryland Elections

New information will show dominance of large donors in congressional primaries
For Immediate Release

Baltimore, Oct. 21 – In Maryland’s congressional primaries, bigger wallets give a small set of mega-donors an outsized voice, according to new information released today by the Maryland PIRG Foundation and Demos. Just 122 donors who gave $1,000 or more to candidates in the primaries outspent the at least 2,440 small donors who gave less than $200, and 63% of all candidate contributions came from donors giving chunks of $1,000 or more.

“Some argue about which party benefits the most from the new Wild West of campaign finance, or claim that so long as both major candidates in an election are well-financed, our democracy is working the way it should,” said Maryland PIRG Foundation Director Emily Scarr. “But that misses the forest for the trees: the voices of small donors in Maryland are increasingly drowned out by the spending of a small cadre of large donors, and ordinary citizens are the ones who lose out.”

In the wake of the Supreme Court’s recent decisions undermining campaign finance rules, most notably Citizens United v FEC, Maryland’s elections have become increasingly flooded by large donations. And big money, often from out-of-district donors, can have an increased effect in primaries because often, spending in the primaries is lower than in the general election. The effect of this “money primary” is that it systematically disadvantages grassroots-fueled candidates who appeal to ordinary voters, but not to big donors.

The Maryland PIRG Foundation/Demos analysis examined contributions in congressional primaries in all states except Louisiana (which holds its primary on Election Day), and compared fund-raising from large donors (contributions of $1,000 or more in at least one race) and small donors (who gave $200 or less). Among its findings:

  • Just 122 large donors in Maryland contributed as much as the at least 2,440 small donors combined in its congressional primaries, ranking it 31st. The state with the greatest inequity between small and large donors was Texas, with a single large donors (a self-financed candidate) exceeding all small contributions from a minimum of 8,767 small donors.
  • Nationwide, fewer than 5,500 large donors outspent at least 440,000 small donors.  If that were a single race, it would mean that a candidate who got 10,000 people to give a small donation would lose out in the money race to someone who only got 125 large contributions.
  •  In terms of the percentage of primary funds coming from large donors, Maryland came in 33rd, at 63%; the top slot was again taken by Texas, with 80% of primary contributions coming from large donors.

There are successful, proven models to empower small donors, so that their voices play a more central role in our democracy, such as providing tax credits and public matching funds for small donations. For example, in New York City’s 2013 city council campaigns, small donors were responsible for 61% of participating candidates’ contributions, when funds from a matching program are included. In 2009, all but two of the 51 winning candidates participated in the small donor program, showing that candidates are able to raise the money they need to win without looking for large-dollar contributions. In September, the Montgomery County Council voted unanimously to establish the first county level small donor incentive program in the state.

“If our primaries just help select the candidate with the most appeal to big donors, our democracy will suffer,” said Scarr. “Mega-donors shouldn’t get to drown out the rest of our voices by virtue of having deeper pockets.”

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Maryland PIRG Foundation, the Maryland Public Interest Research Group, conducts research and public education on behalf of consumers and the public interest. Our research, analysis, reports and outreach serve as counterweights to the influence of powerful special interests that threaten our health, safety or well-being.

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