October 24, 2014

Liberally Speaking

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Campaign spending 2010

Nov. 24, 2010

By Steve Mount

In January, the Supreme Court, in its Citizens United ruling, forbade the government from restricting corporate spending on candidate elections. Some pundits mocked the ruling, as it continued the Court’s practice of treating corporations as individuals, this time in terms of free political speech rights. Others worried that elections would now be flooded with money as corporate donors attempted to “buy votes.”

Now that the election is over, a valid and important question is, did anyone try to buy votes? Or was this just a red herring? Before we can answer that question, we need to know how much money was spent in the 2010 election season. The number, actually, is astounding.

The Center for Responsive Politics estimates that almost $4 billion (with a “B”) was spent on the various races in the 2010 election — the most ever.

In races for the House, $972 million was raised and $845 million was spent. Republicans out-raised Democrats $502 million to $465 million. The race that raised the most money was in Minnesota, where Republican incumbent and eventual winner Michele Bachmann raised over $11 million, more than doubling the $4.2 million raised by her Democratic challenger Tarryl Clark.

In races for the Senate, $668 million was raised and $609 million was spent. Republicans also out-raised Democrats, $356 million to $294 million. The top race was in Connecticut, where Democrat Richard Blumenthal raised $7.6 million to hold on to Democratic stalwart Chris Dodd’s former seat. He was able to overcome Republican challenger Linda McMahon, who raised a whopping $47 million, almost all of it coming from her own personal accounts.

Does it really take over $15 million to run a race for a House seat and $55 million to run a race for a Senate seat? Fortunately not — at least not yet.

In Vermont, Democratic Sen. Patrick Leahy raised $4.6 million, and spent just over $3 million, to defeat Republican Len Britton. Britton’s numbers pale in comparison to Leahy’s, with just under $200,000 raised and $144,000 spent.

Democratic Rep. Peter Welch raised $974,000 and spent $573,000 to retain his seat; Republican challenger Paul Beaudry raised just over $30,000 and spent $23,000 of that.

But what about all that unrestricted corporate spending? The Center for Responsive Politics estimates that this outside spending amounted to $282 million in the 2010 election — $90 million in support of liberal candidates and $184 million in support of conservative candidates.

It is hard to say, however, how much of an effect on elections this money had in 2010. It seems clear that impatience with the pace of economic improvement played a big part in Republican gains in 2010. Even if spending on conservative candidates had not almost doubled that of liberal candidates, it’s unlikely that the outcome would have been much different.

So why all the hullabaloo about Citizens United and all the unrestricted and unreported corporate spending if it is likely that the result in 2010 would have been the same anyway? The problem is that the next election may not be so stilted to one side, and any small weight could tip the scales. Plus, with the presidency on the line, the temptation to spend even more money in 2012 will be hard to resist.

The regulation of political spending is a minefield of conflicting principles and interests. Most would agree that it is getting out of hand, if it has not already. The big question is, though, what can be done about it? I don’t think the issue is a threat to our democracy just yet, but it can become one.

It should be a priority to work out the issues surrounding campaign financing. It must be possible to come to agreement on what can be accomplished relative to the guidelines provided by the Supreme Court (or to propose amendments to the Constitution if these limits are too restrictive). We must have and enforce reasonable reporting requirements. And we must expect the government and the press to make sure that the public knows all it has a right to, in a timely manner, so we can decide for ourselves if someone is trying to buy our vote.

Steve Mount has been a Williston resident since 1996. He is a software engineer at GE Healthcare and is devoted to his family, his country and his Constitution. You can reach Steve at [email protected] or read his blog at http://saltyrain.com/ls.

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