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19 Things We Learned About Money in Politics in 2019

The year in campaign finance had highs and lows (mostly lows).

December 18, 2019
money flag
Getty/Matt Anderson Photography

19. The 2020 elec­tion will be expens­ive. By Decem­ber 1, candid­ates for pres­id­ent had collect­ively raised $624 million accord­ing to Open Secrets. Pres­id­ent Trump is lead­ing with $165 million. 

18. It’s good to be rich (example 1). Former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, a billion­aire who was a late entrant into the Demo­cratic race, will skip the early pres­id­en­tial primary states and instead will spend $37 million of his own money to try to win on Super Tues­day.

17. It’s good to be rich (example 2). Tom Steyer, another billion­aire in the Demo­cratic primary, is presently 96 percent self-financed. Put another way, his campaign has raised $50 million and $48 million is from Steyer himself.

16. It’s good to be “rich” (example 3). “Billion­aire” Pres­id­ent Trump is not paying for his reelec­tion. In 2016, he made a big show of claim­ing he was self-finan­cing. He actu­ally only paid for less than 20 percent of his 2016 run. As of Decem­ber 1, he’s put in less than $10,000 of his own money.

15. State elec­tions can still rack up a hefty price tag. In 2019, Virgini­a’s legis­lat­ive races cost over $100 million, and candid­ates vying to be Kentuck­y’s next governor spent over $22 million.

14. The Secur­it­ies and Exchange Commis­sion is pro-dark money. The agency chose the open­ing of the impeach­ment to roll out proposed rule changes that will make it harder for share­hold­ers to fight back against corpor­ate dark money.

13. The Supreme Court didn’t expand Citizens United. In May 2019, the Supreme Court declined to review Massachu­setts’ corpor­ate contri­bu­tion ban, leav­ing such bans in place for 20 states and in federal elec­tions.

12. But the Supreme Court is still hostile to campaign finance laws gener­ally. In Thompson v. Hebdon, a case about whether Alaska’s contri­bu­tion limits are too low too, the court’s decision kept contri­bu­tion limits in place for 2020 — but also likely made it harder for states to defend low limits. (This is follow up on a case called Randall v. Sorrell, in which the court found that Vermont’s limits were uncon­sti­tu­tion­ally low.)

11. Roger Stone’s comeup­pance arrived. Special Coun­sel Robert Mueller declined to bring crim­inal charges for possible campaign finance viol­a­tions against the Trump 2016 campaign, though charges were brought against Trump campaign surrog­ate Roger Stone for lying to Congress about Wikileaks in the 2016 elec­tion. Stone was convicted on all charges in Novem­ber 2019.

10. States and local­it­ies continue to lead campaign finance innov­a­tions. In Novem­ber 2019, Seattle City Coun­cil races used demo­cracy vouch­ers, and San Fran­cisco approved a new campaign finance law which includes limits on dark money. Mean­while, New York State may finally get public finan­cing.

9. Online polit­ical ads are a flash point. In Octo­ber 2019, Twit­ter got out of the polit­ical ad game stat­ing that it would not run paid polit­ical ads in 2020. Mean­while Face­book doubled down on polit­ical ads decided to let polit­ical lies flow

8. Small donors make a huge differ­ence. Outside of House Lead­er­ship, Rep. Alex­an­dria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) led 2019 third quarter fundrais­ing for Congress. This is partic­u­larly impress­ive because 81 percent of her donors were small (under $200). Maybe her “Netflix for Demo­cracy” model works.

7. You scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours. Repub­lican politi­cians are stay­ing at Trump prop­er­ties. Mean­while, Trump is fundrais­ing for senat­ors with a likely impeach­ment trial loom­ing, includ­ing adult sleep overs at Camp David. And the Repub­lican National Commit­tee bought enough copies of Donald Trump Jr.’s book to land him at the top of the New York Times best-seller list. ()

6. The Federal Elec­tion Commis­sion remains nonfunc­tional. The FEC lost its quorum in August and cannot enforce campaign finance law effect­ively until another Commis­sioner is appoin­ted. This leaves the Justice Depart­ment as the last cop on the campaign finance beat.

5. You can’t pay for five — count them — five mistresses with campaign funds. Rep. Duncan Hunter’s (R-CA) crim­inal campaign finance case got a lot racier with alleg­a­tions that five mistresses and one pet rabbit were involved. In Decem­ber, he pleaded guilty to using over $150,000 in campaign funds for personal use.

4. Crime with a soon-to-be pres­id­ent does­n’t pay. Trump’s former lawyer Michael Cohen repor­ted to jail in May 2019 for break­ing campaign finance laws. The pres­id­ent is still named as “Indi­vidual 1” in Cohen’s crim­inal case.

3. No things of value from foreign­ers are allowed (example 1). In June, the New York Times repor­ted that a Ukrain­ian Russian named Pavel Fuks said he paid $200,000 to attend the Trump 2017 inaug­ural but says he was duped. If true, this would be on top of the $50,000 that another Ukrain­ian spent for tick­ets to the Trump inaug­ural as revealed in Sam Patten’s plea deal. None of that is legal.

2. No things of value from foreign­ers are allowed (example 2). Rudy Giuliani asso­ci­ates Lev Parnas and Igor Fruman were arres­ted. Lev appar­ently had five cell­phones, Trump straws, cash, and the busi­ness card of a top Ukrain­ian anti-corrup­tion prosec­utor on him. They are now charged with campaign finance crimes includ­ing funnel­ing foreign money into the U.S. elec­tion.

1. No things of value from foreign­ers are allowed (example 3). Pres­id­ent Trump’s loom­ing impeach­ment swirls around a possible foreign thing of value. This time alleged the thing of value is “dirt” on Joe Biden in exchange for milit­ary aid for Ukraine. The revel­a­tion of this bribe by a whis­tleblower led to the current impeach­ment inquiry by the House. Mean­while, both Trump and Demo­crats are using impeach­ment for fundrais­ing for the 2020 elec­tion.

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