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Baltimore — Today Maryland PIRG released a new study, “The Money Chase: Moving from Big Money Dominance in the 2014 Midterms to a Small Donor Democracy.” The study, which was written by Maryland PIRG and Demos, found that the top two vote-getters in the 25 most competitive districts in 2014 got 86 percent of their campaign dollars from individuals giving $200 or more. Only two of the 50 candidates surveyed raised less than 70 percent of their individual contributions from big donors, and seven relied on big donors for more than 95 percent of their individual contributions.
“All too often, a handful of deep-pocked donors gets to determine who runs for office, what issues make it onto the agenda, and too frequently, who wins,” said Emily Scarr. “Since most of us can’t afford to cut a thousand dollar check to candidates for elected office, we need to counter the outsized influence of mega-donors by amplifying the voices of small donors.”
“In 2014 big money called the tune in a system where the size of your wallet determines the strength of your voice and candidates without large donor networks find it impossible to keep up,” said Demos Policy Analyst and report co-author Karen Shanton. “But it doesn’t have to be this way. Matching small contributions with limited public funds can raise all of our voices and help candidates win by reaching out to average voters, not just big donors.”
The report analyzed the U.S. House races in the 25 most competitive districts according to Cook Political Report PVI ratings. The data reveals that the 50 candidates in these races overwhelmingly relied on large contributions to bankroll their campaigns.
Other key findings include that candidates for the House must raise approximately $1,800 a day for two years prior to Election Day in order to match the fundraising of the median House winner in the 2014 elections. Candidates for the U.S. Senate must raise $3,300 every day for the length of a six-year Senate term to match the 2014 median winner.
The study also explains how this big money system filters out qualified, credible candidates from both parties who lack access to a network of large donors. Four candidates, who relied more on small donors but were significantly out-fundraised, are profiled in the report.
As Amanda Renteria – one of the candidates profiled who lost in California’s 21st district – explains, “given my network, where I come from, where I’m running, I expected that I wasn’t going to have huge donors. You have to ask folks for help that have been in your network and that understand where you’re running and why it’s important. That for me ended up being a small donor base.”
The report advocates for a federal program laid out in the Government by the People Act, a bill sponsored by Congressman John Sarbanes (D-MD) that would match small contributions with limited public funds, allowing grassroots candidates relying on small donors to compete with big money candidates. This type of program has already been established in Montgomery County, Maryland for county level elections. Starting next election cycle when qualifying candidates can have small donations matched if they reject large and corporate donations.
Small donor incentive programs have proven effective in New York City’s 2013 City Council race. Once matching funds are factored in, candidates participating in the program raised more than 60 percent of their funds from small donors.
If a small donor matching program were in place for the candidates profiled in the report, one of them would have significantly out-raised her opponent, and the others would have narrowed the fundraising gap by an average of nearly 40 percentage points.
“When campaigns are paid for by big donors, those are the voices candidates hear the loudest. In a democracy based on the principle of one person, one vote, small donors should be at the center of campaign finance – not an afterthought,” concluded Emily Scarr.
Maryland PIRG, the Maryland Public Interest Research Group, is a consumer group that stands up to powerful interests whenever they threaten our health and safety, our financial security, or our right to fully participate in our democratic society.
Demos is a public policy organization working for an America where we all have an equal say in our democracy and an equal chance in our economy.
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