You may not have noticed this, but since last month’s midterm elections the Republican party has been speaking out strongly for campaign finance reform.
Well, not exactly. GOP leaders have been grousing about the unfairness of having been outspent by Democrats, especially in Congressional races, leading to the loss of 40 seats in the House of Representatives. In other words, they’re not lobbying for less money in politics, just lamenting that not all of it flowed their way.
That means that the prospects of genuine reform are probably more remote than ever. The truth is that both major parties are addicted to giving by millionaires, billionaires and industry, though their sugar daddies and mommies aren’t the same. It also means that GOP complaints are expressions of spectacular hypocrisy.
Let’s start by listening to the complaints.
House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) was early out of the chute. As we reported last week, he wrung his hands at a post-election forum about campaign spending — by Democrats. “We got massively outspent,” he said. “I mean, big-time outspent. You get a couple of billionaires dropping a hundred million dollars on your head, that leaves a mark.”
Former California GOP Chairman Shawn Steel, who remains a Republican national committeeman, joined the lamentations. As he explained the GOP’s near shutout in California congressional races to Politico, “What we didn’t anticipate was the money tidal wave, and it’s pretty clear to me that the billionaires run the Democratic Party.”
Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-Costa Mesa), whom voters sent to the showers after a 30-year career representing Orange County in Congress, told Politico he “didn’t lose this vote, my district was purchased.” He was even more direct with my colleagues Mark Z. Barabak and Sarah D. Wire: “The reason I lost and we lost is because you had Bolshevik billionaires who pumped in enormous sums of money to defeat us. That was it.”
Now let’s look at the record.
Contrary to Ryan’s statement, federal filings through Nov. 13 reveal only one billionaire with contributions of more than $100 million to federal campaigns in 2018. That was Las Vegas tycoon Sheldon Adelson (including contributions in the name of his wife, Miriam). The Adelsons spent $113 million, of which 100 percent went to Republicans and conservatives. A large share of that went to the Congressional Leadership Fund, which is affiliated with, yes, Paul Ryan.
President Trump last month gave the Medal of Freedom to Miriam Adelson, an honor that surely had nothing to do with her and her husband’s lavish contributions.
The Adelsons are followed on the big-spender list by billionaires Tom Steyer and Michael Bloomberg, who contributed about $60 million each within the reporting time frame, all of it to Democrats.
It’s possible that later contribution reports by Steyer and Bloomberg will show that either or both topped the $100-million mark. But it also appears that, on the whole, plutocratic donations to both parties in this midyear Congressional cycle ran, at best, neck and neck.
Federal filings through mid-November, as compiled by the Center for Responsive Politics, show that among donations from the top 25 individual contributors to federal candidates, parties, political action committees, and “527” advocacy groups, $232.9 million went to Republicans and conservatives, and $236.9 million to Democrats and liberals.
What about organizational spending? Consider super PACs, those curious manifestations of campaign finance law that the Center for Responsive Politics says “may raise unlimited sums of money from corporations, unions, associations and individuals, then spend unlimited sums to overtly advocate for or against political candidates.” Super PACS can’t donate money directly to candidates and can’t “coordinate” their spending with the candidates.
Among the top 25 super PACs in 2018 spending, through Dec. 3, contributions supporting Republicans and conservatives came to $341 million; contributions on the Democratic and liberal side totaled about $282 million.
This suggests that Republican claims of being “massively outspent” are mere flapdoodle, at least on a national scale. What about in California?
Rohrabacher’s complaint about the pumping in of enormous sums to defeat him are tantamount to special pleading. As Barabak and Wire observed, it’s true that Bloomberg’s Independence USA Super PAC and other Democratic-leaning groups dropped $4.4 million into Rohrabacher’s district. But the Congressional Leadership Fund, Ryan’s war chest, responded with $4 million.
The Congressional Leadership Fund supported several of the other GOP candidates who got turned out in California. The center’s digest of the fund’s outflows shows it spent $6.2 million in opposition to Democrat Gil Cisneros, who defeated Republican Young Kim in the race to succeed the retiring Ed Royce (R-Fullerton); $5.8 million to support Rep. Steve Knight (R-Palmdale) in his unsuccessful race for reelection against Democrat Katie Hill; $4.5 million against Democrat Josh Harder or to support Republican incumbent Jeff Denham (R-Turlock), who lost; and $434,000 to support Rep. Mimi Walters (R-Irvine), who lost to Democrat Katie Porter.
Democratic-leaning super PACs didn’t sit all these races out. In addition to its $4.4 million spent against Rohrabacher, Bloomberg’s Independence USA supported Hill with more than $5 million (combining spending for Hill and against Knight); and about $690,000 against Republican Diane Harkey or in support of Democrat Mike Levin in their race to succeed the retiring Darrell Issa (R-Vista), which Levin won.
All these numbers — the totals raised by donors and the sums spent on Congressional races on both sides — are appalling in their magnitude. They just add to the mound of evidence that our entire electoral system is open for sale or, to put it another way, the target of a financial arms race with no end in sight. Traditionally, it’s Democrats who complain about campaign finance and the influence of billionaires and industry. But as they’ve approached parity with GOP fundraising, their interest in reform has accordingly ebbed, too.
What’s most remarkable about the Republicans’ complaints this time around is that they’re glossing over two solutions that should be blindingly obvious. One is to reform campaign finance to wipe out contributions and spending on this scale. The other is to realign the party platform so it conforms to what voters plainly are looking for. Republicans in California didn’t lose because they couldn’t pay for enough TV ads to make their sales pitch, but because the voters didn’t buy what they were selling.