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Off-Year Election Takeaways for Money in Politics

Last week’s off-year elections provided a window into the role money plays in our politics, and the possibilities for campaign finance for reform across the country.

  • Beatriz Aldereguia
  • Natalie Giotta
November 15, 2017

Most observ­ers of last week’s off-year elec­tions were focused on the implic­a­tions for the Demo­crats’ abil­ity to mount a cred­ible chal­lenge to Pres­id­ent Trump and Trump­ism. However, the races were also an inter­est­ing window into the role money plays in state and local elec­tions, and the possib­il­it­ies for campaign finance reform across the coun­try.

All eyes were on Virginia Tues­day night, and the state delivered a rivet­ing set of outcomes—at no small cost. The elec­tions for governor, attor­ney general, lieu­ten­ant governor and House of Deleg­ates broke both fundrais­ing and spend­ing records in the state. Virginia is some­thing of a Wild West when it comes to campaign finance, with no limits on campaign dona­tions from indi­vidu­als, corpor­a­tions, or polit­ical action commit­tees. Among other things, the state’s lais­sez-faire polit­ical culture produced a whop­per of a scan­dal when former Governor Bob McDon­nell was prosec­uted in federal court for accept­ing hundreds of thou­sands of dollars in gifts from a diet­ary supple­ment maker who wanted the state to promote his products (McDon­nell’s convic­tion was over­turned by the Supreme Court on tech­nical legal grounds that had noth­ing to do with the appro­pri­ate­ness of his conduct).

Yet, there is also a glim­mer of hope for reform. Nine­teen candid­ates for the Virginia House of Deleg­ates—­some incum­bents and some chal­lenger­s—signed a pledge from the national organ­iz­a­tion Every Voice to prior­it­ize oppos­ing Citizens United, enact­ing elec­tion contri­bu­tion limits, and passing legis­la­tion to incentiv­ize every­day citizens’ parti­cip­a­tion in Virginia polit­ics. Ralph Northam, Virgini­a’s Governor-elect who has called for caps on campaign dona­tions and a ban on corpor­ate, made the same pledge to fight big money.

Over on the West Coast, the picture was remark­ably similar. Wash­ing­ton State had the dubi­ous distinc­tion of host­ing the most expens­ive state legis­lat­ive contest in Amer­ican history. The special elec­tion for the 45th Senate District, which decided party control of the cham­ber, exceeded $8.5 million in total spend­ing, with large amounts spent by candid­ates’ campaigns and by outside groups and PACs. One legis­lator called the amount spent on that race a “pain­fully, horrific­ally unpre­ced­en­ted assault on common sense and a healthy demo­cracy.”

While winner Manka Dhin­gra did not make campaign finance cent­ral to her plat­form, she did express dismay at the massive amounts of money spent on the race, noting that it had convinced her of the need for state-wide campaign finance reform. Let’s hope her colleagues agree. There appears to be wide­spread consensus about the need for reform in Wash­ing­ton, but recent legis­lat­ive efforts — for example a push to close dark money loop­holes and ensure full trans­par­ency for all campaign spend­ing — have come up short.

If Wash­ing­ton State offi­cials need a good model, they should look no further than their own largest city, Seattle. In 2015, Seattle passed a land­mark public finan­cing scheme, under which each voter in the city receives four “Demo­cracy Vouch­ers” total­ing $100 that can be assigned to their preferred candid­ate for city office—­provided the candid­ate agrees to parti­cip­ate in at least three public debates, and to comply with certain contri­bu­tion and spend­ing limits. A local court recently turned back a consti­tu­tional chal­lenge to the program.

On elec­tion day, three demo­cracy voucher candid­ates won their races. Two of them, M. Lorena González and Teresa Mosqueda, were elec­ted to the City Coun­cil, making six of the nine coun­cil-members women (includ­ing four women of color). Both González and Mosqueda raised over two thirds of their total money from $25 vouch­ers. Incum­bent city attor­ney Pete Holmes also won as a demo­cracy voucher candid­ate, rais­ing a little over half his money  from the same program. The success of the program’s inaug­ural launch did not come as a surprise, since five of the six candid­ates in this past general elec­tion qual­i­fied for and used the new system. But it reaf­firmed that vouch­ers can help amplify under­rep­res­en­ted voices, both as donors and candid­ates.

Last Tues­day, down-ballot candid­ates showed the nation that money still matters greatly in  our campaigns — espe­cially in down-ballot races that receive less media cover­age — and that the push campaign finance reform is still alive and well in the states. Legis­lat­ors should recog­nize that Citizens United and other recent Supreme Court cases do not hamstring them from enact­ing mean­ing­ful change. Small donor public finan­cing, contri­bu­tion limits, and campaign finance disclos­ure are still very much on the table. In the 2017 elec­tions, we saw that these meas­ures can work – and that voters are creat­ing momentum to enact them.