The Big Money Politics Problem We Need to Talk About

In a federal system--a system that prioritizes letting people govern their own communities--it should concern us whenever bigger money from other places distorts elections in places with smaller money.
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We live in an era of massive inequality in America, one that many call our second Gilded Age. This inequality manifests itself in all facets of our public life, including in our political system. One feature of this political inequality that has not received sufficient attention, though, is geographical. We need to start a conversation about political inequalities between places. Simply put, places with more wealthy people can use their wealth to distort elections in places with fewer very wealthy people.

In a federal system--a system that prioritizes letting people govern their own communities--it should concern us whenever bigger money from other places distorts elections in places with smaller money. It should concern us even more when that bigger money brings in a national politics that has grown increasingly unhealthy, and distorts the traditions of a place where politics has been working just fine. A great example of all of this comes from the Republican primary this past Tuesday in the 21st congressional district.

Before we zoom in to see what happened in the North Country, let's first zoom out to see the larger, national problem of geographic political inequality. We live in a country with substantial and growing differences in wealth across locations. In locations with many "creative class" workers--those using their higher levels of education to pursue employment related to higher levels of human capital--there is economic growth. In locations with energy resources, there has also been economic growth. In most parts of the country, though, economic growth has been slow, or economic contraction has emerged.

The result is a staggering economic geography. In New York City, there are approximately 370,000 millionaires (using net assets as the measure of wealth). In the entire state of Mississippi, there is approximately one-twelfth the number of millionaires as in New York City. In less than four square miles of New York City there are more millionaires than in the nearly 49,000 square miles of Mississippi.

This world of geographic economic inequality facilitates political inequality across places. The very wealthy dominate political contributions. Indeed, campaign contributions are ten times more concentrated than income. The top .01 percent of the income distribution controls 5 percent of total income and provides 40 to 50 percent of the total dollar amount of our campaign contributions. The very wealthy do not just contribute more, but also often contribute to elections in places far from their residence.

Putting all of these trends together, it means that a few wealthy donors in one place can distort an election in another place--a place without their own wealthy donors to match. Rather than focusing on the issues that matter locally, big money from elsewhere focuses voters on other issues. Rather than focusing on candidates with local appeal, big money focuses voters on new candidates more tied to big money than to local places. Once in office, the candidate elected by big money from elsewhere might have to answer to that big money and not to local constituents. Added together, this can ruin vibrant and distinct local political traditions in favor of the political preferences of wealthy donors from elsewhere.

To be sure, this geographical distraction does not always occur. In places with numerous millionaires or places of broader national interest, the influence of one millionaire can be utilized to counterbalance the influence of a different millionaire. If you are running for office in New York City, the Republican candidate might call on the Koch Brothers, and the Democratic candidate might call on George Soros. You have your billionaire, and I have mine.

In many elections, the stakes are so high that even places with fewer wealthy donors attract a diverse range of wealthy donors from elsewhere. Consider, for instance, the Republican Senate primary in Mississippi this past Tuesday between Thad Cochran and Chris McDaniel. Because it was for a Senate seat as opposed to a House of Representatives seat, because of interest generated by the Tea Party, and because there are no other major races this time of year, the race attracted a lot of attention. If a wealthy donor gave a lot of money to Cochran, McDaniel could find his own wealthy donor. Interest was high and so money was more available.

These are exceptions worth noting, but exceptions nonetheless. Most of the time in most of the places when big money comes from elsewhere, though, it is not like the Mississippi Senate race. The big money from wealthy donors elsewhere is in favor of one candidate and one candidate only, and distorts what happens in that local place with fewer or no big money donors to match the big money from elsewhere.

As a recent and notable example of this, consider the Republican primary this past Tuesday in the North Country in New York. The 21st congressional district is one of the more physically stunning districts in the country (I was raised in Plattsburgh, a city in the Northeast of the District). It is spread out over 16,000 miles of beautiful nature, making it one of the largest and least dense districts east of the Mississippi. The number of millionaires in the North Country is more like Mississippi than like New York City.

This congressional district is the rare remaining swing district. The district narrowly went for President Barack Obama in 2008 and 2012. At the same time, a Republican had represented parts of the district in the House of Representatives for 164 consecutive years, until Democrat Bill Owens won the seat in a special election in 2009.

This past Tuesday, voters in the North Country selected their Republican nominee to compete for the seat of Owens, who is retiring. Matthew Doheny, the 2010 and 2012 Republican nominee who lost to Owens, ran against Elise Stefanik, a top national conservative political operative.

For the first time in the North Country, wealthy donors from outside gave major contributions to an election there. Stefanik was supported by over $800,000 from American Crossroads, an organization facilitated by Karl Rove and supported by billionaires with no ties to the North Country like Paul Singer. This was the only House primary election American Crossroads participated in this election cycle. Combined with hundreds of thousands of dollars from the Koch Brothers and other, similar organizations, the money from wealthy donors outside the North Country supporting Stefanik totaled about $1.2 million. The connections these donors facilitated helped Stefanik raise another $660,000.

In a place like the North Country, that is an enormous sum of money. Approximately forty dollars was spent by outside organizations for each of the less than 27,000 Republican primary voters. Doheny, because of his Wall Street ties and prior runs for Congress, raised $600,000, a significant amount for a party primary in the North Country--and it one-third of the amount spent by or for Stefanik.

If it was a different place and a different election, these dollar amounts might be chump change. In a Senate race like the Cochran-McDaniel primary on Tuesday, other donors paying attention could match the amount that Rove, Singer and the Koch brothers contributed. In the North Country, this is not as possible.

As a result, as Roll Call reported, these wealthy donors from elsewhere "upend[ed] the race." Stefanik was a strong candidate, with a record as one of the leading young conservative staffers in Washington. Despite what Doheny claimed, she might have won anyway, and the money from places with more millionaires maybe only increased the margin to a comfortable 20 points or so.

But there are plenty of reasons to think that wealthy donors from elsewhere distorted the race. For one thing, there is no way to know if this big money from elsewhere changed the election outcome. One thing that big money can do is to increase a candidate's name recognition. Stefanik had very low name recognition, and had never before lived full-time in the current district. In a party primary that did not receive much national attention, turnout was bound to be an issue, and big money can increase turnout. Turnout was twice in this Republican primary what it was two years ago.

More significantly, the big money from wealthy outside donors distorted the focus of the campaign from important local issues to negative attacks related to national issues. The North Country faces major challenges. Fort Drum, a military installation in Watertown in the district, is the largest employer in the district--and faces cuts that could shrink its civilian and troop numbers in half. Because of the size of the district and its rural nature, there are issues related to access to health care and technology. With big national money coming in--and not enough local money there to fight it--the primary became more about ObamaCare and a Republican majority in Congress than about Fort Drum.

The evidence of the influence of wealthy donors might not be apparent until after an election. After an election, when there is less voter attention, wealthy outside donors can change what issues their candidate prioritizes. When major donors like Singer and the Koch brothers indicate their support for federal budget cuts, will Stefanik still be able to resist them and their money in the name of locally important Fort Drum? When Paul Ryan introduces a budget reflecting these cuts to Fort Drum, will Stefanik continue to be able to resist her mentor and patron's budget? One Tea Party politician praised Stefanik for being a "true conservative." What will Stefanik do when being a "true conservative" to those in national politics means cutting government support for agriculture, a crucial industry in the North Country? These are issues of particular importance since Stefanik has been hailed as a future statewide or even national political figure. Ensuring that Singer or the Koch brothers still approve Stefanik is doing will be crucial for any of her future statewide or national efforts.

Wealthy donors from elsewhere distorting an election should be a concern anywhere because of our tradition of self-government. But it should be even more of a concern when that money distorts the politics of places with an honorable political tradition. The North Country is such a place, and the events of Tuesday therefore threaten to disrupt the local political good for the nonlocal political bad.

It used to be that swing congressional districts featured elected officials who voted according to principle instead of party. Now, swing districts feature politicians appealing to the case of their party. In the increasingly rare political tradition of the North Country, though, politicians have still been principled, saying things that their party might not support. The voters rally behind this, voting for politicians from both parties, and voting for them even when--or perhaps especially when--these politicians defy their own party.

For instance, a Republican state legislator from this district, Janet Duprey, voted against gay marriage in the New York State Legislature the first time it came to the floor. She changed her vote the second time, at the same time the national Republican Party was leading the effort against gay marriage in Congress and in the Supreme Court. She was re-elected by the voters of the North Country by over 35 percentage points.

Owens, the retiring member of Congress, votes with Republicans as often as all but a few of the 199 Democrats in the House of Representatives. In response, he was re-elected twice to a seat that had been in Republican hands for a very long time. Even Aaron Woolf, the Democratic nominee to replace Owens, disagrees with Democratic Party leadership nationally by strongly supporting Second Amendment rights.

After Tuesday's primary election, the question is whether this honorable political tradition of the North Country will gradually merge into the unhealthy political tradition we see in the rest of the country. Will candidates trying to lure the Koch brothers to give big amounts to the North Country pay more attention to the Koch brothers than to the voters of places like Glens Falls or Ogdensburg? If politicians do follow the wishes of wealthy donors elsewhere, can these wealthy donors spend enough money in later elections to distract the voters of the district from their loyalty to wealthy donors elsewhere?

We live in a big country. In that big country, there are still a few, special places that have resisted unfortunate national trends. One problem with the growing political inequality in our country is that these last few, special places could be overrun by the bank accounts of billionaires elsewhere. It is time to talk about these places, and what is happening to them, before the United States of America becomes the One Place of America.

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