Last week a memo was sent out by MoveOn.org on behalf of Lori Saldaña’s campaign excoriating Scott Peters for loaning his campaign $1.2 million out of his own personal funds. In the memo, MoveOn claims that “Peters realized that his only chance was to try to buy the race.”
“This can’t be how democracy works—the candidate with the biggest bank account wins,” the memo declared. The problem with that statement is that this is exactly how democracy works these days. Just ask any Republican candidate running for public office what their biggest advantage is over their Democratic (not “Democrat,” as has become the pejorative in Republican circles) opponent, and they’ll tell you it’s their ability to raise and spend more money most of us can possibly fathom.
That’s the political system we’re stuck with. McCain-Feingold is essentially a thing of the past. Since the Supreme Court’s decision in the Citizen’s United case, individuals and corporations with the deepest of deep pockets are now free to literally buy our elections. Because, after all, “Corporations are people my friend.”
I understand the argument, and it makes sense to a point. If a guy has that kind of money to put into his own campaign then he must not be able to identify with me, Average Joe (or Jo) Voter. He’s obviously very wealthy and doesn’t represent my interests. He must be a “candidate of the 1%,” as the MoveOn memo declares. It’s a common refrain among Democrats—especially progressive Democrats. “Money is bad!” or “He has more money so he must be an awful candidate.”
It’s an effective but entirely misguided argument.
What such an argument tends to completely overlook is the inherent money advantage Republicans typically have in their campaign efforts. And there’s one factor that has been completely ignored in the California 52nd Congressional race: The election is not just between Lori Saldaña and Scott Peters. The race for 2nd place in the primary may be a two way affair, but Republican incumbent Brian Bilbray is still a major presence, and that presence cannot be ignored.
What MoveOn and the Saldaña campaign want us to assume is that Peters is raising money only for the effort to win the primary.
Whether we like it or not, money matters. Just look at the gubernatorial recall race in Wisconsin: Governor Scott Walker is incredibly unpopular. The state is in the pits. They have the worst job creation record since Walker took office in the entire country. He deliberately misled voters in his initial election campaign and said nothing about dismantling unions and abolishing union rights. Yet that’s exactly what he’s done, triggering some of the most massive protests the nation has seen in decades. The petition drive to initiate the recall generated over one million valid signatures—in the dead of winter, no less–a record, and four times what was necessary.
You would think that it would be a foregone conclusion that Scott Walker would be on his way out. There’s no way this guy who has become one of the most polarizing figure in American politics could survive the recall. But some reports have the Republicans outspending Democrats by as much as 25 to 1. Walker has gone on a national fundraising tour and has hauled in cash by the truckload. As a result, and despite his unpopularity, he’s leading in the polls over Democrat Tom Barrett heading into the June 5th recall.
It’s no coincidence. The wealthiest among us overwhelmingly favor Republican candidates, and not usually because they think they’re the best candidates. Rather, Republican candidates are far more likely to support policies that will make these wealthy benefactors even richer without having to lift a finger to earn it. It’s all about self interest and the return they’ll get on their investment. They’re not spending millions on Republican campaigns merely out of the goodness of their hearts.
Why else would the Koch brothers pour tens of millions of dollars into the Wisconsin recall race? Or the hundreds of millions they’ve poured into national elections over the last few election cycles? If they can just get rid of labor laws, decimate environmental laws, and get rid of those pesky workplace safety regulations. The workplace would be far more dangerous, workers would be paid less and receive fewer benefits, the public would be in serious danger because there would be nothing to stop the world’s largest privately held oil and gas company from dumping noxious chemicals into our air and water supply at their leisure, and the Koch brothers would see their profit margins soar.
What’s a $50 million investment in buying an election when you stand to make many hundreds of millions?
Or put it this way: Should Barack Obama insist on the dismantling of Priorities USA Super PAC and go it alone, while Mitt Romney will be benefitting from hundreds of millions of dollars in expenditures from Karl Rove’s Crossroads GPS Super PACs, the Americans for Prosperity Super PAC (the Koch brothers), and the Freedom Works Super PAC, among many others?
The Wisconsin recall is supposed to serve as a sort of test case for a national election. And the question we’ll soon have answered is whether or not a superior, massive ground effort will be able to overcome a massive expenditure advantage?
That’s essentially the situation we have here with the 52nd race. Lori Saldaña and Scott Peters are already both well behind in the money race, with Saldaña way behind. Granted, Brian Bilbray doesn’t have the same financial resources that Scott Walker has in Wisconsin, but he has a major advantage nonetheless, to the tune of having double what Scott Peters has in the bank, and he’s likely only scratching the surface of what he’ll have access to.
But Saldaña has a ground effort comparable to the test case in Wisconsin. Since Peters doesn’t have the same kind of ground support, he’s betting that being more competitive financially and his more moderate stance will help him through to November.
If the goal is to beat the Republican incumbent in November, which is the safer bet? Setting aside her flaws as a candidate (not that Peters doesn’t have his own warts) and her likely inability to appeal to true middle-of-the-road voters, will Saldaña really be able to beat Brian Bilbray with a good ground game, but a nearly 4 to 1 fundraising disadvantage? According to FEC records, Bilbray has raised $1,133,571 compared to Saldaña’s $306,494, and he has nearly $800,000 on hand compared to merely $25,000 for Saldaña.
Truthfully we just don’t know if a good ground game can overcome a huge money advantage and investment on the airwaves. But that’s the bet that the Saldaña campaign is making, and the bet they’re asking primary voters to make. But should we really be demanding that Scott Peters tie his own hands behind his back and limit his own ability to compete? He has the personal resources, so why shouldn’t he loan his own campaign money just like Hilary Clinton did in the 2008 Presidential campaign? There is nothing illegal or unscrupulous about it. He is working perfectly within the rules of the game. If we don’t like it, then let’s change the rules (easier said than done). We can start by overturning Citizens United.
Until the system is changed there’s no reason that a Democratic candidate for public office shouldn’t be allowed to take advantage of the same rules Republicans are using to bulldoze their way into office. Republicans will always have a monstrous money advantage. Democratic candidates shouldn’t be disallowed from raising money from perfectly legal sources just because the progressive Democratic voting base hates rich people.
You can either run to win or you can stand on principle alone and lose. If Democrats want to win elections, then our candidates must be allowed to at least attempt to level the playing field. The rules shouldn’t be any different for Democrats. Because the reality is that winning and maintaining a majority is the only hope we have of finally getting the system changed once and for all.