Skip Navigation

Unstoppable Campaign Fundraisers

Neither snow, nor rain, nor heat, nor gloom of night can stop a political fundraiser. Apparently neither can a scheduled execution, nor can the federal government shutdown.

October 3, 2013

Neither snow, nor rain, nor heat, nor gloom of night can stop a political fundraiser. Apparently neither can a scheduled execution, nor can the federal government shutdown. The furious pace of squirreling away funds for the next election continues. On October 1, as the federal government closed its doors, there were at least three scheduled fundraisers for members of Congress.

Also on October 1, convicted murderer Marshall Lee Gore was executed by the State of Florida. His execution had previously been scheduled for September 10. Gore’s death was not postponed at the request of his lawyers. No. Gore’s execution was rescheduled because it conflicted with a fundraiser for the elected Attorney General of Florida. 

That’s right. Instead of moving her fundraiser, she asked Governor Rick Scott to reschedule the execution. The Florida AG has since apologized profusely for making the request to move the execution, leading to odd headlines like this one from MSNBC: “AG vows to never again delay an execution…for a fundraiser.” But she is hardly the only politician who has had campaign fundraising intrude on their ability to govern. 

During his reelection campaign President Obama attended over 200 fundraisers (not all for him, but still a prodigious amount). Mother Jones calculated in August of 2012 that this worked out to the leader of the free world attending a political fundraiser roughly every 60 hours.  Author Brendan J. Doherty in his book, “The Rise of the President’s Permanent Campaign,” finds this was more than his five predecessors combined.

Fundraising also sucks an enormous amount of productivity out Congress. The general public might not realize that fundraising isn’t allowed on Capitol Hill. This means that Congressmen dash away from their government offices, sometimes literally running off the floor from a recent vote on legislation to nearby office space rented by the DNC and RNC, so that they can sit in windowless cubicles to dial for dollars to raise money for their own reelection and their political party. And they have lots of money to raise. Winning candidates for the House raised on average $1.5 million and winning candidates for Senate raised on average $9.7 million in 2012. 

The federal judiciary is spared this indignity of fundraising since they are appointed for life. State judges in 39 states are not so lucky, and like freshmen Congressmen in swing districts, state judges are often stuck hitting up donors, such as the lawyers who appear before them, to pay for their reelections. Retired Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, who advocates for moving states from judicial elections to appointive systems, has argued that state judicial candidates can ignore money in elections no more than you can ignore an alligator in your bathtub.

The pace of fundraising has only intensified with the advent of post-Citizens United Super PACs. For example, even Stephen Colbert’s joke Super PAC, Making a Better Tomorrow Tomorrow, was able to raise over a $1 million dollars in a short period. Super PACs can raise money from unlimited sources (so long as they aren’t foreign individuals). This allows Super PACs to tout or oppose federal candidates with newfound financial force.

Unlike Mr. Colbert, most political operatives aren’t creating Super PACs as a TV gag. They mean business and they spend real money (to the tune of over $100 million in certain cases) for and against candidates. This means candidates have to struggle to keep control of their message as outside groups try to snap up the same ad time.

Like so much else in the realm of money in politics, none of this is preordained. We have policy choices to make. If we collectively choose to have privately funded campaigns, then we will get Congressmen missing votes to fundraise and even executions pushed for political cocktail parties.

States have alternative models that could work at the federal level. In Connecticut and Maine, candidates are given the option of full public financing for elections that provides a set grant for a campaign. In New York City, there is a generous six to one match of public funds for each $175 from a qualified donor for candidates who volunteer to participate.  

Public financing is wildly popular where it is available. In New York City 90 percent of candidates participated in 2009; in Maine 77 percent of candidates participated in 2010; and in Connecticut 70 percent of candidates participated in 2012. These fair election models change how candidates fundraise and should be adopted on a wider scale.

Until those reforms happen, while the federal government is shuttered, you can double check with the Sunlight Foundation’s Party Time to see whether your elected representative gets off the campaign cocktail circuit. My prediction is very few will cancel their fundraisers just because the government is closed. After all, they have targets to hit in order to fund that next election. Until a fresh alternative to the current broken system is enacted, that alligator in the bathtub isn’t going away.

(Photo: Thinkstock)

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