Skip Navigation

Money in Politics This Week

A roundup with the latest news highlighting the corrosive nature of money in New York State politics — and the need for public financing and robust campaign finance reform.

  • Syed Zaidi
November 10, 2012



NY State Attorney General Should Investigate Shadowy “Non-profits”

Citizens Union has filed a formal complaint with New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman, asking the office to investigate a Virginia-based 501(c)(4) that poured money into New York State Senate races. Article 7-A of the Executive Law requires charities and nonprofits that solicit contributions from residents, corporations foundations or government agencies in New York to register with the State Charities Bureau. Common Sense Principles, which claims to educate the public about limited government and fiscal responsibility, commissioned dozens of mailers in at least three key State Senate districts, targeting Monroe County Legislator Ted O’Brien, Assemblyman George Latimar (D-Rye) and Senator Joe Addabbo (D-Queens). By organizing as a charitable organization rather than a political committee, Common Sense Principles has avoided the greater level of transparency that political committees are subject to. According to Citizens Union executive director Dick Dadey, “registration with the Charities Bureau is one existing mechanism that can help shed light on 501(c)(4) organizations engaging in this political activity, though campaign communications and expenditures by veiled third-party entities and individuals should be disclosed in a manner similar to candidate campaign committees.”

Notable Success by Two Anti-Super PAC Super PACs

Friends of Democracy, the Super PAC opposed to Super PACs, had formidable success in helping to elect reform-minded candidates in New York State and Congressional races. In an upstate New York Senate race, Friends of Democracy and a similar Super PAC, Protect Our Democracy, spent $250,000 each to assist Cecilia Tkaczyk, a Duanesburg dairy farmer and school board member who has voiced her support for campaign finance reform and citizen-funded elections. Her opponent, Assemblyman George Amedore, is largely viewed as a defender of the status quo. Tkaczyk is leading thus far by 139 votes, but the race will not be settled until all absentee ballots are counted over the coming weeks. In New York Congressional races, Friends of Democracy was involved in the contest between Sean Patrick Maloney and Nan Hayworth in the lower Hudson Valley’s 18th district, as well as the race between Dan Maffei and Ann Marie Beurkle in Syracuse’s 24th district, targeting reform opponents Hayworth and Beurkle. Jonathan Soros, co-founder of Friends of Democracy, stated that the results signal an unprecedented and important message to lawmakers: “Being on the wrong side of reform can cost you your seat.”


Money Totals from the Presidential Campaign

Now that the Presidential election is over, it is time to do crunch the numbers. According to the Sunlight Foundation Influence Explorer, President Barack Obama raised $639 million for his campaign, and spent $553 million. Mitt Romney raised $393 million and spent $360 million. In the aftermath of Citizens United, independent expenditures were quite heavy this cycle. The duo of Super PACs and non-profits, bearing advantages such as unlimited spending and secret donors, provided extensive funds to keep the Presidential campaigns going. Nearly $26 million worth of independent expenditures were made supporting Barack Obama and over $330 million opposing him, according to totals by Sunlight’s Follow the Unlimited Money. Super PACs and non-profits spent $64 million supporting Mitt Romney, and $94 million against him.  

Big Contributions Came Largely from White and Wealthy Neighborhoods

Almost all of the large contributions that fueled the Presidential campaigns came from people who live in predominantly wealthy, white neighborhoods. Analysis by AP assessed all contributions over $200 based on census blocks—neighborhood units described by the U.S. Census Bureau. Hispanics constitute 16 percent of the U.S. population but less than 4 percent of large political donations came from majority-Hispanic neighborhoods. The trends were similar for campaign contributions from majority-African American, Asian or Native American neighborhoods. Majority-white neighborhoods accounted for more than 90 percent of big donations this Presidential election cycle. A citizen-funded matching system, such as the one in New York City would likely change this equation. The fair elections system in New York City boasted dramatically greater political contributions from minority and poor neighborhoods in City Council races, when contrasted with New York State Assembly contests, which lack small-donor matching funds.

Citizens Unite Behind Opposition to Citizens United

As voters headed to the polls to elect the next President across the United States, citizens in Montana and Colorado had the opportunity to demonstrate their views on corporate personhood and unlimited campaign contributions. The Citizens United decision by the Supreme Court held that independent expenditures by corporations and unions cannot corrupt. A subsequent ruling by a lower court opened the door for corporations and unions to spend unlimited sums as long as their spending is independent of campaigns. In Montana’s challenge to Citizens United, the Supreme Court extended its ruling to state and local laws, in addition to federal. Montana’s Initiative 166, Stand with Montanans, establishes an official policy that corporations are not people with constitutional rights, and charges state elected officials with supporting a constitutional amendment. More than 70 percent of the electorate voted for the initiative. Montana, a solid red state, provides testament to the notion that citizens across the political spectrum demand reform of our broken campaign finance laws. In Colorado, Amendment 65 instructs Colorado’s Congressional delegation to propose an amendment to the U.S. Constitution that allows Congress and states to limit campaign contributions and spending. Amendment 65 garnered 74 percent of the vote with 95 percent of precincts reporting. The Colorado and Montana resolutions are the first statewide initiatives by citizens calling for the overturn of the controversial court ruling. Eleven state legislatures have already passed resolutions denouncing Citizens United including California, Hawaii, Massachusetts, New Jersey, New Mexico, Rhode Island and Vermont.

How Money Mattered this Election cycle

In the aftermath of the Presidential election, pundits are analyzing whether all the money spent by candidates, parties, Super PACs and non-profit “social welfare” organizations actually mattered. Early analysis by the Sunlight Foundation reveals that the drastic surge may not have been the crucial determinant of election outcomes, at least in races for the House. Outside spending did not alter the likelihood of winning although it did increase the vote share of the candidate favored by the group. For Republicans, each additional Super PAC million boosted the Republican vote share by 0.16 percentage points. But it is too soon to dismiss the role of outside money and its impact on our elections. Money mattered to a great extent in smaller races, especially when it arrived as a surprise and en masse. These four House races provide stark examples of instances where outside money made the vital difference. On the other hand, direct spending by candidates had a positive relationship with the probability of victory. In the 25 House races with no consistent lead, the candidate the spent more won 60 percent of the time. In cases where one candidate outspent the other by at least $500,000, that candidate won 65 percent of the time. Whatever the outcomes, the big donors sent a clear message to all candidates that they cannot ignore those who bankroll them. As the American Prospect put it, on “November 7th, the real game begins—when those who purchased a full term of access to their favored candidate begin to exercise an undemocratic advantage over the millions of Americans who merely voted, to shape the laws and regulations that are written for all of us.”

Several Pro-reform Senators Elected Tuesday

Fellow Americans disgusted by the influence of big money over our elections may be relieved by the knowledge that six new Senators who are stalwart supporters of campaign finance reform, will be joining the Congressional chamber next year. The new Senators will be replacing Senators who were absent, inactive or in some cases entirely against the prospect of citizen-funded elections. Senators-elect Tammy Baldwin (D-WI), Martin Heinrich (D-NM), Chris Murphy (D-CT) and Mazie Hirono (D-HI) co-sponsored reform initiatives such as the Fair Elections Now Act during their tenure in the House. Senator-elect Elizabeth Warren’s (D-MA) campaign website specifically mentions her support for citizen-funded elections. Former Governor and Senator-elect Angus King (I-ME) is a fervent supporter of his state’s Clean Election system. In the lower chamber, 114 House members that co-sponsored the Fair Elections Now Act or the Grassroots Democracy Act will join the 2nd session of the 112th Congress.