Monday, May 19, 2014

Dollars and disillusionment in our elections. Are our public offices simply for sale?

It has been two weeks since primary election night, and in that time I've seen multiple emails and web comments from conservative activists throwing in the towel on the Republican party.  Numerous party registrations are supposedly being changed.  While I'm not there - yet, there is this unsettled feeling I can't shake.  That feeling is summed by the following question.

Are our public offices, simply for sale to the highest bidder?  

Or, more specifically is money the most important thing in our elections - trumping positions and support from the grass roots?

The last couple of Republican Primary election cycles here in North Carolina and the Charlotte area specifically give those questions legitimacy.  In fact local political consultant, Larry Shaheen, seemed to say as much to the Washington Post the day before the most recent primaries. After predicting a Thom Tillis win and surpassing the 40% threshold to avoid a runoff (a prediction that turned out to be true).  Larry Shaheen said this...

"In North Carolina, what everyone always forgets is that grass roots will not carry you over the finish line," said Shaheen. "It will help you get to the starting line and push you over it."

The main difference in US Senate primary according to the Washington Post article was simply the money the Tillis Campaign raised.  That sentiment is backed up by this article in National Journal showing that Thom Tillis was in a tight contest with Greg Brannon and Mark Harris in January.  By April after an avalanche of outside money poured in from Karl Rove and Mitch McConnell, he had a big lead. 

From NationalJournal.com... 

"The goal was simple: Increase Tillis's low name identification, knowing his opponents wouldn't have the resources to fight back. In January, the group commissioned a survey from veteran GOP pollster Jan van Lohuizen showing Tillis only tallying 16 percent in the crowded field, with 60 percent of Republican voters unsure of their choice. Just over one-quarter of North Carolina GOP voters were familiar with Tillis. But in the middle of their advertising blitz in late April, another poll commissioned by Crossroads and conducted by van Lohuizen found Tillis's name identification had shot up to 66 percent, with him tallying 38 percent of the primary vote. That same poll showed only about one-third of voters familiar with Brannon and Harris."

Think about that for a minute.  Thom Tillis, one of the top 3 politicians in the state, has name ID at only 25% among his own party a few short months before the election.  That's a sad enough statement on the state our electorate.  Then the adds pour in and he wins simply because people know who he is and don't know the other candidates.  In that scenario issues don't even really matter.  That's the truly pathetic part.

And there are other examples of the overwhelming influence of big money on our local races.

In the 2012 cycle, the Republican primary election for the ninth Congressional District (NC-9) saw a similar influence of big money.  Robert Pittenger spent more personal money that just about anybody in the country in that election - dumping about $2 million into the congressional primary against his nearest contender - former Mecklenburg County Sheriff Jim Pendergraph.

Robert Pittenger actually received a fine for one of his personal donations to his campaign when a donation made right before the first primary was not reported correctly.  See this story from Roll Call for the complete details.

A freshman Congressman has paid a $31,000 fine for a campaign finance disclosure violation in his first federal election. But the fine was a relatively small amount for the 13th richest member of Congress.

The campaign committee of Rep. Robert Pittenger, R-N.C., failed to file a 48-hour contribution notice prior to his May 8th primary election in 2012. The pre-election notice would have disclosed Pittenger’s own $309,000 contribution to his campaign on April 26, 2012. Pittenger failed to win the primary outright, but ranked first with 32% of the vote in the eleven-candidate field. In the July 12th primary run-off, Pittenger beat former Mecklenburg County sheriff James Pendergraph.

The Federal Election Commission required the Pittenger for Congress LLC to pay a $31,010 civil penalty, which included $110 for one notice not filed, plus 10% of the overall contributions not filed. The fine was paid on February 21, 2013.

In that same primary, Jim Pendergraph only committed $21,322 of personal money to his campaign. 

Think about that one for a minute.

Robert Pittenger paid a fine on just a small portion of the funds he committed to the race and that fine was 150% of the entire amount of money his opponent was able to commit.

The difference in this race was that the big money was personal money, rather than outside spending.  However, the result was the same. Here's how it played out in the 2nd primary runoff-- Pendergraph actually won Mecklenburg county where his long tenure as Sheriff gave him high name recognition, but Pittenger swamped him in Iredell and Union counties.  In both the first and second primaries, Pittenger flooded mailboxes and the airwaves in a way the Pendergraph campaign simply couldn't match.  He ended up eking out a close victory

Personal money also played a major role in the recent campaign to replace Thom Tillis in the Legislature.  John Bradford has already loaned his campaign $160,000 for this election cycle and spent a whopping $100,000 battling it out to a big win for the Republican nomination for NC-98.  According to campaign finance reports, he appears to be the only candidate in the primary who paid for TV time, and his campaign signs were ubiquitous.

In both of these campaigns it appears personal money was a driving force in the victory whether the race turned out to be a close one or a landslide.  In both cases the candidates were running in safe Republican districts so all of this money was spent against other Republicans in primaries.

Incidentally, Larry Shaheen is on the Bradford Campaign payroll according to campaign finance reports, so it appears the campaign has taken Mr Shaheen's comments about money trumping grassroots to heart.

I'm not na├»ve enough to think money isn't important in political campaigns.  It obviously is.  However, these recent campaigns all signal that it's the most important thing.  As an activist who likes to think hard work matters and influencing voters through personal connections can make a difference, that's a hard pill to swallow.

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