In First Congressional Primaries, Big Money Wins 88% of Races

On Super Tuesday, higher fundraising candidates win vast majority of congressional races


WASHINGTON, DC – On Super Tuesday, candidates in Alabama, Arkansas, and Texas competed in the first congressional primary races of 2016. According to an analysis by U.S. PIRG Education Fund, 87.5% of higher fundraising candidates won their congressional race and now head to the general election.

 “Whether it’s the presidential race or a more local contest, candidates have to rely on high-dollar donations to meet the basic threshold for running a competitive campaign,” said Dan Smith, Democracy Campaign Director for U.S. PIRG. “This Super Tuesday, we saw cattle ranchers and veterans, activists and local leaders who lost their primary after they fell behind in the race for cash. Our elections should be about big ideas, not big checks, and it’s time we start implementing solutions that reduce the influence of money in elections and put regular voters in the driver’s seat.”

On Tuesday, March 1, candidates competed in congressional primaries for seats in Alabama, Arkansas, and Texas. U.S. PIRG examined all congressional races in which at least two candidates competed for their party’s nomination and at least one candidate raised funds for their election. Out of the 32 races that met these standards, 87.5% of these primaries were won by the better-funded candidate, while only four were won by candidates who raised less funds than their opponent. 

Of those four victories, three were in low-stakes races where one party nominated a candidate for a congressional race heavily favoring the opposite party. If those elections are excluded, and only races for a competitive party nomination are examined, then better-funded congressional candidates win 27 out of 28 of the qualifying primaries on Super Tuesday.1

Polls show that a vast majority of Democrats, Republicans, and Independents support overturning Citizens United and revamping campaign finance laws in the United States. Sixteen states and over 680 communities nationwide have called for an amendment to overturn Citizens United. This year, California and Washington State may put their own referendum on the ballot asking voters whether they support overturning the decision.

In November of 2015, Maine and Seattle voters strongly approved clean election ballot measures to help refocus state and local elections on ordinary people over special interests and mega-donors. Localities including D.C., Chicago, and Los Angeles are now considering similar legislative and regulatory reforms to empower small donors over special interest groups and big contributors in their elections.

[1] Non-competitive party nominations refer to primary victories in districts so heavily partisan that a nominee from the opposing party cannot run a competitive campaign to win the general election. These include primaries for Democrats in heavily Republican districts and primaries for Republicans in heavily Democratic districts. The partisanship of each district was measured using the Cook Political Report’s Partisan Voting Index. Any primaries in a district with a PVI ranking for the opposite party of +10 or higher are excluded using this methodology. These primaries include: Texas, District 3, Democratic Primary; Texas, District 18, Republican Primary; Texas, District 33, Republican Primary; and Alabama, Senate, Democratic Primary.

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With public debate around important issues often dominated by special interests pursuing their own narrow agendas, U.S. PIRG Education Fund offers an independent voice that works on behalf of the public interest. U.S. PIRG Education Fund, a 501(c)(3) organization, works to protect consumers and promote good government. We investigate problems, craft solutions, educate the public, and offer Americans meaningful opportunities for civic participation.