Study shows big donors dominated congressional races

Staff Report

CHICAGO — Illinois PIRG was joined by U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Illinois, Jan. 16 to release a new study, “The Money Chase: Moving from Big Money Dominance in the 2014 Midterms to a Small Donor Democracy.”

The study, which was written by Illinois PIRG and Demos, found that the top two vote-getters in the 25 most competitive districts in 2014 got 86 percent of their campaign dollars from individuals giving $200 or more.

Only two of the 50 candidates surveyed raised less than 70 percent of their individual contributions from big donors, and seven relied on big donors for more than 95 percent of their individual contributions.

All too often, a handful of deep-pocketed donors gets to determine who runs for office, what issues make it onto the agenda, and too frequently, who wins,” said Maggie Galka, campaign organizer with Illinois PIRG. “Since most of us can’t afford to cut a $1,000 check to candidates for elected office, we need to counter the out-sized influence of mega-donors by amplifying the voices of small donors.”

Demos Policy Analyst and report co-author Karen Shanton added: “In 2014, big money called the tune in a system where the size of your wallet determines the strength of your voice, and candidates without large donor networks find it impossible to keep up. But it doesn’t have to be this way. Matching small contributions with limited public funds can raise all of our voices and help candidates win by reaching out to average voters, not just big donors.”

The report analyzed the U.S. House races in the 25 most competitive districts according to Cook Political Report PVI ratings. The data reveals that the 50 candidates in these races overwhelmingly relied on large contributions to bankroll their campaigns.

Other key findings include that candidates for the House must raise approximately $1,800 a day for two years prior to Election Day to match the fund-raising of the median House winner in the 2014 elections. Candidates for the U.S. Senate must raise $3,300 every day for the length of a six-year Senate term to match the 2014 median winner.

The study also explains how this big-money system filters out qualified, credible candidates from both parties who lack access to a network of large donors. Four candidates, who relied more on small donors but were significantly out-fundraised, are profiled in the report.

Durbin noted: “In the five years since the Citizens United ruling, corporations and wealthy individuals have effectively been given a blank check to influence our democracy. Americans would be shocked if they knew how much time members of Congress and candidates seeking office must spend dialing for dollars and attending fund-raisers. Fixing our broken campaign finance system would give candidates the opportunity to focus on dealing with our nation’s problems, rather than chasing after campaign cash. The report by U.S. PIRG and Demos outlines the damaging effects of rampant spending that has given unprecedented political power to the wealthy. I applaud these organizations’ efforts and will continue to work with them to pursue common-sense reforms, such as the Fair Elections Now Act, so that we can ensure all Americans have their voices heard.”

The report advocates for federal programs laid out in the Fair Elections Now Act in the Senate and the Government by the People Act in the House that would match small contributions with limited public funds, allowing grassroots candidates relying on small donors to compete with big-money candidates. This type of program has already proven effective in New York City’s 2013 City Council race. Once matching funds are factored in, candidates participating in the program raised more than 60 percent of their funds from small donors.

If a small donor matching program were in place for the candidates profiled in the report, one of them would have significantly out-raised her opponent, and the others would have narrowed the fund-raising gap by an average of nearly 40 percentage points.

Read the profiles at

Galka concluded: “When campaigns are paid for by big donors, those are the voices candidates hear the loudest. In a democracy based on the principle of one person, one vote, small donors should be at the center of campaign finance — not an afterthought. Fortunately, Sen. Dick Durbin is leading the way towards putting small donors at the center of campaign finance by sponsoring the Fair Elections Now Act.”

From the Jan. 21-27, 2015, issue

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