What to watch this primary day

Today, 166 congressional primary nominations will be up for grabs -- more than any other single day this year. Big money could play a deciding role.

Sarah Friedman

Heading into the 2016 elections, Americans say they are concerned about unemployment, taxes, poverty, healthcare, terrorism, education, national security and many other issues. But today, when 166 congressional primary nominations will be up for grabs (more than any other single day this year), the results will be heavily influenced by something else entirely –– big money.

So far this election cycle, 83 percent of higher-fundraising candidates have won their congressional primaries. This Tuesday’s races may be even more lopsided. In California, the largest state hosting a primary today, candidates have raised up to $11 million for a single Senate nomination, and the vast majority of competitive candidates have raised the bulk of their funds from large donors.

That kind of fundraising has refocused our elections on raising money from mega-donors and special interests all while everyday voters are pushed to the sidelines. In fact, the top-fundraising Senate candidates competing today, in California, Iowa, South Dakota, all got less than 10 percent of their contributions from small donors.[1] It’s time to turn that kind of big-money politics on its head – a majority of donations should come from everyday Americans, not large corporations and billionaires.

A small donor empowerment program could make that goal a reality. Tell your senator to support the Fair Elections Act.

Here’s how small donor empowerment works: if a candidate refuses to accept large contributions from corporations and other special interests, they are eligible to have their small donations matched with public funds at a rate as high as 6:1. In other words, with a small donor empowerment program, a $50 donation becomes a $350 contribution.

We know these programs are effective because we’ve already seen their successes. When small donor empowerment was implemented in New York City, small contributions grew to 61 percent of total contributions for participating candidates in the 2013 City Council race. With small donor empowerment, the voices of everyday Americans would be amplified over those of special interests.

Studies show that under such a system, small donors would provide an estimated 74 percent of campaign fundraising in the presidential election. That’s a huge improvement over the 33 percent that candidates currently receive from small donors.

The influence of big money in this election cycle cannot be underestimated. Just 158 families donated half the early money in this year’s race for the White House. This massive spending by a few mega-donors creates a barrier to qualified candidates entering the race who may not have the wealth and connections to raise sums of money this large. Those who are able to raise enough money to run are forced to rely on mega-donors whose interests are dramatically different than those of everyday Americans.

Most of the voters headed to the polls this Tuesday are concerned about the economy, taxes, healthcare, national security, and the issues that impact their day-to-day lives. But big-money has fundamentally refocused our elections on another issue entirely: how much our members of Congress can raise before voters even get to weigh in.

If we want a government of, by, and for the people, we have to act now. Tell your senator to support small donor empowerment legislation that puts voters in control of our democracy.

There’s too much at stake this election to stay quiet.



[1] Using data from the Federal Election Commission and counting unitemized contributions under $200 as “small donations.” http://www.fec.gov/


Sarah Friedman

staff | TPIN

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