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18 Things We Learned About Money in Politics in 2018

From dark money to mystery spies, it was a busy year for money in politics.

December 5, 2018

18. It’s still too dark in our democracy. Dark money kept flowing in November’s midterm elections. Since Citizens United in 2010, $850 million in dark money — or money in politics contributed from a secretive source — has been spent in federal elections. The total is $950 million if you add in the 2008 election.

17. Cha-ching! The 2018 midterm elections were the most expensive midterms in American history (or at least since data was reliably tracked). The total price tag surpassed $5 billion, according to Open Secrets.

16. Fix this please, say voters. Campaign finance reform ballot measures are still popular with voters. Missouri, Arizona, North Dakota, Florida, and New Mexico all adopted new laws for money in politics in 2018.

15. In for a penny, in for a pound. Corporate donors take big risks when they give corporate PAC money to problematic politicians. U.S. Senate candidate Cindy Hyde-Smith made strange comments about attending a public hanging while running against an African-American opponent. After the incident, lots of companies wanted their donations back, including Major League Baseball, Walmart, Union Pacific, Google, AT&T, Pfizer, Amgen, Boston Scientific, Leidos, Ernst & Young, Blue Cross Blue Shield, and Facebook. Despite this donor rebellion, Hyde-Smith won her race.

14. Candidates say “no thank you” to corporate PACs. Approximately 200 Democratic candidates rejected corporate PAC money during the 2018 election. Not all of them won their elections, but many will be incoming freshmen in the newly flipped House of Representatives.

13. The mystery spy is caught. An alleged Russian spy named Maria Butina was arrested in 2018. There are still a number of unsolved mysteries from the financing of the 2016 election, including what was going on between the NRA and Butina, who looks like she is now cooperating with prosecutors. This criminal case could just be a Foreign Agent Registration Act (FARA) violation. But it could also be a big campaign finance violation. Watch this space. Word to the wise: It is super illegal to accept foreign money for use in an American election.

12. Wait, you gave me too much money! In 2018, the FEC mostly lived up to its reputation for not enforcing federal campaign finance laws, including failing to pursue a case against Kid Rock. But the agency did send out multiple letters to campaigns and donors for accepting (or making) campaign contributions over the hard money limits of $2,700. One of the recipients of these letters was President Trump’s lawyer John Dowd, who gave his client’s committee too much money.

11. Mitch still wields the gavel. Senator Mitch McConnell continues to slip policy riders into the federal budget that prevent the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) from tackling dark corporate money.

10. There had to be a more qualified guy/gal. Memo to all future presidential 2020 candidates: Pick a campaign manager more carefully than candidate Trump did. In 2018, President Trump’s ex-campaign manager Paul Manafort was found guilty in one trial for tax and business crimes. He then pled guilty to other crimes like witness tampering and had his plea agreement with the special counsel fall apart. The least amount of due diligence in hiring a campaign manager could have helped avoid all these legal headaches for team Trump. Manafort will be sentenced in 2019.

9. Better corporate governance is trending. There continues to be progress in the voluntary disclosure of political spending by publicly traded companies. Nearly half of the S&P 500 have decided to be more transparent about their political spending following years of pressure from investors, according to the Center for Political Accountability

8. You re-elected who? Candidates can still win an election to Congress even while under indictment for campaign finance violations. Rep. Duncan Hunter (R-Calif.) is going back to Congress despite standing accused of using campaign funds for $250,000 personal expenses.

7.  You re-elected who part 2? Candidates can still win an election to Congress even if the House Ethics Committee is investigating them. The House Ethics Committee has an investigation into Rep. David Schweikert (R-Ariz.) over his possible receipt of illegal campaign contributions. He’s kept his seat, too.

6. R.I.P. John McCain. A champion of campaign finance reform at the federal level, Senator John McCain passed away in August 2018. His legacy of fighting corruption lives on in the McCain-Feingold legislation, even though the Roberts Supreme Court chipped away large chunks of the anti-corruption law.

5. A 28th Amendment for money in politics? The move to amend the Constitution to address Citizens United continued gaining ground. Nineteen states and nearly 800 localities had called for this amendment. In Massachusetts, voters embraced the creation of a commission made up of 15 Massachusetts citizens who will promote amendments to the U.S. Constitution to improve campaign finance.

4. Cleaner is better. Public financing in New York City got a tune-up. The voters chose to lower the amount of private money that can be contributed to candidates for city office. At the same time, the public financing match was bumped up from six public dollars to eight public dollars for each eligible private dollar.

3. Sunlight breaks in. Secretive political nonprofits litigated all the way to the Supreme Court in CREW v. FEC, but the Supreme Court refused to stop a lower court ruling that requires nonprofits that buy certain political ads to reveal their donors. This should put a dent in the dark money problem in future elections. 

2. Democracy is job number 1. Likely incoming Speaker of the House Pelosi rolled out H.R.1 as the first priority of the new House of Representatives in 2019. H.R.1 is a package of democratic reforms that includes campaign finance reforms.

1. The Department of Justice still has jurisdiction over campaign finance crimes. Federal prosecutors will still prosecute campaign finance crimes, including against Michael Cohen, President Trump’s former lawyer and fixer. Cohen pleaded guilty in August to violating two different aspects of federal campaign finance law by facilitating payments to two women for their silence during the 2016 presidential election. In a bombshell, Mr. Cohen named the president as the reason he committed the campaign crimes.

The views expressed are the author’s own and not necessarily those of the Brennan Center for Justice.

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