If, as the maxim insists, a day is a lifetime in politics, then six years must qualify as an eternity. The profound changes in political fund-raising in just six years between 1974 and 1980, because those changes have been understood and influenced by Republicans, could mean that 1982 will not be the big Democratic year now being predicted. If the Democrats are unable to convert a national economic disaster into major victories in the November House elections, then a large slice of the blame will rightly belong with many Democratic congressional leaders between 1974 and 1978 for their arrogance and their political ignorance.
1974. The last really big Democratic year. Running against the recent and unfond memories of the resigned Republican president, Democratic candidates won 49 House seats that had been previously held by Republicans. The 49 winning Democratic candidates spent an average of $96,553 in their campaigns. In 1974, political action committees (PACs) still generally meant organized labor, which that year accounted for half of all PAC contributions of some $11.6 million.
Between the elections of 1974 and 1980, PACs-- in particular corporate and trade associations'--and the GOP both grew and prospered. They also grew close. So close, that by 1980, a very big Republican year when the party's candidates captured 37 House seats that had previously been held by Democrats, the corporate and trade PACs deserved a good share of the credit. Those 87 Republican House winners in 1980 spent an average of $324,000 per congressional district. Of that considerable amount, the successful GOP challengers received an average of $95,490 from PACs.
Back to the arrogant and ignorant Democratic barons in the house who helped create this situation. After 1974, when many of the newer Democratic members sought public financing of congressional elections and a check on the influence of PACs, they found support from Speaker Thomas P. O'Neill but not from many senior members. Those veterans, most of whom held safe, solidly Democratic seats, saw no reason to finance--with public money no less--young challengers against themselves. They enjoyed running unopposed. The growing corporate and trade PACs were savvy enough not to underwrite any kamikaze missions against those entrenched Democrats.
Eventually public financing died. Killed in the Senate was a House-passed measure to limit total PAC contributions in congressional races. All during this period, the House Republican Campagn Committee was establishing and maintaining close diplomatic relations with the non-labor PACs. In 1980, it encouraged those PACs to contribute to the GOP House candidates with the best chance of winning Democratic seats. In 1980, PACs contributed $55.2 million to congressional candidates--more than all House candidates had raised and spent in all campaigns in 1974.
In 1982, the contributions of the corporate and trade PACs, especially in the close races, will go overwhelmingly to Republican congressional candidates and, in some cases, they could mean the difference in keeping a GOP seat. The Democrats sadly only have themselves to thank; they missed the chance to change the way we finance our politics.