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The High Cost of Winning

Nov 18, 2008
Money in politics. Whether viewed as the 800-pound gorilla or the elephant in the room, it is the animal we seem doomed to have to live with. Try as we might, we cannot tame this beast, which grows more voracious at each election cycle. We recall being appalled at the $60 million Nixon’s re-election committee raised in 1972. Today, that’s chump change even in 2008 dollars, as the presidential campaigns for the first time this year passed the billion-dollar mark in revenues raised.1

The Campaign Finance Institute has given us a revealing “First Look at Money in the House and Senate Elections”—a first look because a few races are still unresolved. Among the most notable results:

The High Cost of Winning
Winners in the House races raised an average of $1,282,597 in 2008, twice the amount raised ten years ago. On the Senate side, winners raised $5,507,146, a third more than was raised by winners ten years ago.

When You Gotta Go, You Gotta Go
In the House race, 15 Democrats and 4 Republicans defeated incumbents, and they did so even though they raised, on average, around $400,000 less than their incumbent opponents. Nevertheless, 377 other House incumbents won re-election, outraising their upstart challengers two-and-a-half to one. Similarly on the Senate side, the two incumbents who lost (both Republicans—Sununu (NH) and Dole (NC)) outraised their Democratic challengers almost two to one and still failed to retain their seats. Twenty-four incumbents won in the Senate, outraising their challengers by over three-and-a-half to one. Incumbency may be an advantage, but it is an expensive one.

Landslide or Squeaker?
Results in the races for open seats (no incumbent) in the House and Senate may be a good indication of just how profound the move to the left was in this election. Was Obama’s commanding electoral count (about 365 to McCain’s 162) reflected in Democratic successes in runs for open seats? In a word, no. Of five open seats in the Senate, three were won by Democrats and two by Republicans. Of the 33 open seats in the House, Democrats won a slim majority of 17; Republicans, 16. The three Democratic senators had to raise an average of $10 million dollars for those seats; the two Republicans only $3.3 million. Put those laurels back in the closet. We can’t rest on them yet.

A Little Help From Our Friends
Figures above reflect monies raised by candidate campaigns. Add to the mix the “independent expenditures” by national party committees in the 2008 Congressional general election alone, which amounted to $204,261,538. The Democratic committees outspent the Republicans two-and-a-half to one. The lion’s share of the $36 million spent by the Republican Senatorial Committee—$23,683,935—went to two definite losers, Sununu and Dole, and two potential losers (results are not yet in), Coleman (MN) and Smith (OR). The Democratic Senatorial Committee spent $42,817,912 on those races.
We may as well reconcile ourselves to the sorry fact that money in politics is here to stay, at least until some smart lawyer can disassociate campaign contributions from freedom of speech to the satisfaction of five Supreme Court justices. Until that day, let’s remember the power of the little guy in politics. If the roughly 125 million people who voted in the 2008 presidential election each contributed a mere $15 to a national campaign finance fund, it would raise as much money as all the federal races combined, and that includes candidate and party revenues. As these funds come from small, individual donations over time, perhaps our elected officials will voluntarily spend less time cuddling up to the fat cats and corporate hegemonists and pay more attention to the people they are supposed to represent.

If not, we’re going to have to take it to the polls, find candidates who will represent us, and throw the blackguards out.
1 Banking on Becoming President, from OpenSecrets.org (Accessed November 15, 2008)
tags: Politics | Congress

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