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20 Things We Learned About Money in Politics in 2020

For fresh examples of why we need to reform our political system, look no further than the past 12 months.

December 8, 2020
Maksim Chernyshev / EyeEm

20. Fundrais­ing did not stop for snow, nor rain, nor heat, nor gloom of night, nor a pandemic

Trump atten­ded many polit­ical fundraisers in person during the coronavirus pandemic, includ­ing a $250,000 per person fundraiser at his Bedmin­ster golf club in New Jersey right before reveal­ing that he tested posit­ive for Covid-19 in Octo­ber.

19. Campaign finance crimes don’t pay

Ex-congress­man Duncan Hunter was sentenced to 11 months in jail for his personal use of campaign funds, includ­ing flying the family rabbit Eggburt on vaca­tion. His wife Margaret Hunter was sentenced to 8 months of home confine­ment in August for her role in the crime.

18. There is still an appet­ite for campaign finance reform

In Alaska, voters passed Meas­ure 2, which included campaign finance reform includ­ing greater trans­par­ency of money in polit­ics.

17. The Mead­ow­larks learned to sing new tune

Oregon was one of the only states that lacked campaign contri­bu­tion limits because of a 1997 state supreme court ruling that they viol­ated the state’s consti­tu­tion. This year, Orego­ni­ans passed a consti­tu­tional amend­ment to create caps on contri­bu­tions to candid­ates.

16. The candid­ate with more money won most of the time

The pres­id­en­tial elec­tion in 2016 was an outlier because the candid­ate with less money won: Trump. But in 2020, the candid­ate with the most fundrais­ing success also had elect­oral success: Biden. In fact, Joe Biden raised more money in a month in 2020 than Trump did in his entire 2016 run. In Congres­sional races in 2020, the candid­ate with more money won over 88 percent of the time.

15. The rules of game changed for the worse (example 1)

Ever since Citizens United v. FEC allowed corpor­a­tions to spend an unlim­ited amount of money in Amer­ican elec­tions, share­hold­ers have been trying to hold publicly traded compan­ies account­able using secur­it­ies laws. This year, the Secur­it­ies and Exchange Commis­sion changed its share­holder proposal rules in a way that makes fight­ing dark money harder.

14. The rules of game changed for the worse (example 2)

One of the unsolved prob­lems of campaign finance is the lack of trans­par­ency about who is spend­ing in elec­tions. One way that trans­par­ency is lost is when opaque nonprofits are used to create dark money. The IRS changed the rules in May to make dark money darker by delet­ing the require­ment that dark money nonprofits file a list of donors with the IRS.

13. Dark money went digital

After concerns that foreign actors like Russia were spend­ing money in U.S. elec­tions through social media, Face­book and Google became more trans­par­ent about who was buying polit­ical ads on their plat­forms. This allowed research­ers to see new vistas of dark money being spent in Amer­ican elec­tions in near real-time in 2020. Accord­ing to the Wesleyan Media Project, $26 million was spent by the top 15 biggest dark spend­ers on Face­book and Google ads during 2020.

12. Even the pres­id­ent’s daugh­ter is not above the law

The Trump inaug­ural commit­tee is still being invest­ig­ated because millions of dollars seemed to disap­pear and some of the money came from foreign sources, which is illegal. A lot of the funds ended up at the Trump Organ­iz­a­tion. The District of Columbia is pursu­ing its invest­ig­a­tion through a civil suit. In Novem­ber, the pres­id­ent’s daugh­ter Ivanka was deposed by the DC attor­ney gener­al’s office for possibly misus­ing inaug­ural funds by over­char­ging the inaug­ural commit­tee for space in the a Trump hotel.

11. Yarn from the Ukraine scan­dal kept unrav­el­ing

In Octo­ber 2020, Lev Parnas and Igor Fruman pled not guilty again to vari­ous crimes includ­ing campaign finance crimes. Parnas and Fruman stand accused of viol­at­ing the ban on foreign dona­tions by facil­it­at­ing payments from foreign­ers to an Amer­ican Super PAC allegedly in exchange for getting the U.S. ambas­sador to the Ukraine fired. Their scheme allegedly included $2 million going through an entity called Fraud Guar­an­tee.

10. Trump’s campaign managers kept getting in trouble

In 2016, Trump burned through campaign managers includ­ing Paul Mana­fort (imprisoned and then sent to home confine­ment), Steve Bannon (under federal indict­ment), Corey Lewan­dowski (accused of sexual assault), and Kelly­Anne Conway (accused of Hatch Act viol­a­tions). In 2020, Brad Parscale had a long run being Trump’s campaign manager. He may have helped hide $170 million for the Trump campaign. But Parscale was given his pink slip in July, and press reports indic­ate that he may have embezzled money from the campaign.

9. Money can’t buy you love

Billion­aire candid­ates made a lot of waves during the Demo­cratic primary. But all the billion­aires failed to clinch the pres­id­ency. Michael Bloomberg spent $1 billion and Tom Steyer spent $340 million, and neither one got the nomin­a­tion.

8. There may have been more campaign finance crimes in the 2016 elec­tion by Trump

The New York Times in Septem­ber revealed that it had several years of Trump’s tax returns in hand. These docu­ments raise new ques­tions includ­ing whether a loan to Trump in 2016 may have viol­ated campaign finance laws.

7. A pardon may have been for sale at the White House

A batch of pres­id­en­tial pardons in Febru­ary all seemed to have links to campaign finance donors, but it may have been a pardon that Trump did not grant — to Hugh Leslie Baras (who later died) — that may lead to crim­inal trouble. An unsealed court docu­ment indic­ates that a campaign-dona­tions-for-pardons scheme could have occurred at the White House in connec­tion with the would-be Baras pardon.

6. Courts still believe in trans­par­ency

The ruling in Citizens for Respons­ib­il­ity and Ethics in Wash­ing­ton (CREW) v. Federal Elec­tion Commis­sion (FEC) was a win for disclos­ure of money in polit­ics and a loss for dark money groups that had relied on the FEC’s lax rules to do busi­ness. The decision by the DC Circuit Court of Appeals will likely make a differ­ence in post-2020 elec­tions once the FEC regains its quorum under the incom­ing Biden admin­is­tra­tion.

5. Who is post­mas­ter general actu­ally matters

Until 2020, few knew who happened to be the post­mas­ter general. But in 2020, when Trump donor Louis DeJoy assumed the post, he drew ire for two reas­ons related to elec­tions: slow­ing the mail when millions of voters were voting by mail and possibly viol­at­ing laws that govern money in polit­ics. He may have viol­ated campaign finance laws before he joined the govern­ment by making his private sector employ­ees donate and then paying them back. This is the same type of action landed George Stein­bren­ner with a crim­inal record.

4. Winning control of the Senate will cost a pretty penny 

In 2020, $1.5 billion was spent on Senate races, and the Geor­gia runoff on Janu­ary 5 will determ­ine who controls it next year. So campaign money is pour­ing in on all sides for a race that star­ted in 2020 and will end in 2021. Thus, Geor­gi­a’s runoff elec­tions are on pace to be first and second most expens­ive senate seat fights in history.

3. Congress can ignore an elephant in the room during impeach­ment

 Although the House considered includ­ing campaign finance crimes in its articles of impeach­ment since soli­cit­ing a thing of value (oppos­i­tion research on the Biden family) from a foreign govern­ment (Ukraine) during an elec­tion was argu­ably a federal crime, it chose not to. Thus, Trump’s impeach­ment and trial, which ended in Febru­ary, weirdly skipped campaign finance law.

2. Dark money can hide a crim­inal conspir­acy

The Speaker of the House of Ohio Larry House­holder was arres­ted and indicted for his alleged role in a dark money bribery scheme that involved a company called First Energy and $60 million chan­ging hands. Some of this money was spent in Ohio through dark money conduits controlled by House­holder, and he was ousted as speaker. But in a less encour­aging turn of events, House­holder won reelec­tion in 2020, so he is still in the legis­lature.

1. It’s never too late to soak contrib­ut­ors for one last dime

The 2020 elec­tion was the most expens­ive federal elec­tion ever. After Trump lost the 2020 pres­id­en­tial elec­tion, he contin­ued to fundraise, ostens­ibly to fund the legal battles in multiple states seek­ing base­lessly to over­turn the elec­tion. However, fine print in the soli­cit­a­tions for money indic­ate that most of the money is not going to the legal bills at all, but rather fund polit­ical commit­tees, includ­ing one called Save Amer­ica, that Trump will control post-pres­id­ency. In fact, Trump seemed to raise more money postelec­tion that he did on elec­tion eve, in what appears to be a one last grift of his loyal support­ers.

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