In the presidential election, Donald Trump was outspent by Hillary Clinton two-to-one, but his campaign was victorious anyway, raising the question of whether money plays less of a role in elections than many have assumed.
Don’t let this narrative fool you — at the presidential level, and down-ballot, big money mattered more than ever — including in Pennsylvania’s Senate race. Worse still, “dark money” — spending by groups that conceal their funders from the public — played a larger role than ever before, making it even more difficult to prevent the kind of corruption that often follows big political spending.
The fact is, even though candidates with more money don’t always win, most federal candidates rely on big money to fund their campaigns. And the disproportionate influence of big money reaches beyond Election Day to give wealthy special interests outsized control over our government.
Pat Toomey’s reelection campaign in the most expensive legislative race in history illuminates the means by which big money plays an outsize role in boosting favored candidates. Pro-Toomey forces outspent those favoring challenger Katie McGinty by $14 million. Much of that spending came from super PACs, which unlike candidates’ official campaigns, can take unlimited amounts of cash from each donor.
The Senate Leadership Fund, a super PAC with ties to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, spent $15 million in support of Toomey’s reelection. Much of the Senate Leadership Fund’s revenue comes from multi-million contributions from individuals in the financial industry. Former Toomey aides also created a super PAC dedicated to reelecting him, which attracted several six-figure donations from people who work in financial services and venture capital. Toomey has been a vocal critic of the structure of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, which regulates financial services businesses.
Toomey was also boosted by $14.6 million in dark money. The public doesn’t know who spent that money, what they want, or what their relationship with Toomey is, frustrating the accountability to the electorate that is essential in a democracy.
The pattern was the same across several of 2016’s key Senate elections — incumbents attracted more money from big donors and dark-money groups than their opponents and went on to win. One exception: in New Hampshire, Sen. Kelly Ayotte’s campaign outspent that of her opponent, Gov. Maggie Hassan. But outside spending, driven by multi-million dollar super PAC donors, preferred the challenger by $17 million, and Hassan was the winner.
And if the Senate races demonstrate how big money helps candidates get elected, the Trump transition is illustrating the immense influence donors retain once their chosen candidates take office. During the primary, Trump himself repeatedly explained that he used campaign contributions to get politicians to “do whatever the hell you want them to do.” Those who expected that this inside knowledge of the donor-politician relationship would make Trump less susceptible might be quickly disabused of that notion.
Several of Trump’s cabinet picks were major donors or fundraisers, giving a combined $12 million to his campaign, supportive super PACs, and the Republican National Committee. His pick for education secretary, Michigan billionaire Betsy DeVos, once candidly acknowledged that when her family gives money to politicians, they are “buying influence.” Fundraising efforts for Trump’s inauguration promise million-dollar donors the chance to meet Trump and Vice President-Elect Mike Pence.
Hedge-fund heiress Rebekah Mercer is a member of the executive committee of the president-elect’s transition team, and she made into Trump’s orbit by dedicating a super PAC she controlled to electing him. Over the summer, Mercer reportedly influenced the campaign shake-up that brought in Steven Bannon, whose activities have been funded by the Mercer family for years — and who has now been named Trump’s chief White House strategist.
Although the press has covered Trump’s post-election meetings with big donors to his campaign and supportive super PACs, we know far less about the influence that the biggest donors in Senate elections enjoy. But major donors are confident that powerful elected officials know about and are grateful for their contributions.
The campaign finance system is out of balance because the rules give an unfair advantage to the richest few. The idea of our democracy is that our elected officials work for us. But with so much of the money behind elections coming from a small club of millionaires and billionaires, ordinary Americans are right to wonder whether government is really working for them.
Fortunately, there are proven solutions that can bring the system into balance. Better disclosure rules can eliminate dark money and give the voters more power to hold our leaders accountable. Public campaign financing, under consideration in Philadelphia, opens doors for candidates who don’t have access to wealthy donors, giving voters more choice. The Philadelphia proposal, similar to successful programs in New York City and Los Angeles, would match small donations to candidates, empowering people who can’t afford big checks. These powerful reforms can help make sure that everyone’s voice is heard.