Cynical voters have long suspected that if you're rich enough, you can buy your way into national political office. Now a new analysis of Federal Election Commission data by the Brennan Center for Justice provides some evidence to support that idea.
Brennan analyzed primary spending in 16 high-dollar primary races this year, which they define as "competitive races where the viable candidates together raised more than $2 million as of the end of March 2014." What they found was a spending environment where power and influence are concentrated in the hands of the few: Only nine percent of the total money raised in these primaries came from small donations of less than $200. Twenty-seven percent of the spending came from the candidates themselves. Large donors -- those giving more than $200 to a candidate or campaign -- accounted for the lion's share of spending, at 57 percent. Four of the 16 candidates, in fact, spent more than $1 million on their own campaigns; the remaining 12 spent more then $200,000.
"I'm frankly shocked by the high amount of candidate contributions," says study co-author Ian Vandewalker. "If you're rich enough, you can buy your way into a viable campaign with nothing else."
Vandewalker points to Flordia's 19th Congressional district, where businessman and tea party favorite Curt Clawson won the Republican primary last week after loaning his campaign nearly $2.7 million of his own money. Clawson was almost completely unknown before his primary run and is not shy about his outsider status. He bills himself as the "Outsider for Congress" on his campaign Web site and leads his biography with extensive accounts of his experience playing basketball. In winning the Republican nomination, he defeated several more experienced establishment candidates, including State Senate Majority Leader Lizbeth Benacquisto and former state representative Paige Kreegel.
But Clawson is by and large an exception. The report found that tea party candidates are typically getting outspent in competitive primaries: "All but two of the Tea Party candidates included in this analysis have been significantly outraised by primary opponents," the authors write. "In the four races where candidate self-financing did not play a major factor, Tea Party candidates on average were outraised by a margin of almost 2 to 1."
Another fairly interesting finding is the relatively small role played by political action committees, at least in the primaries. "Outside spending was lower than I thought it would be," says Vandewalker. "But that's because it's early." He expects PAC spending to play a larger role going into the general election season.
The bottom line? Mr. Smith - and Mr. Clawson - can still get to Washington. They just might have to pay their own way there.