Checkbook Candidacies

Checkbook Candidacies

By Michael Waldman | Brennan Center for Justice

“We are in danger of creating a situation in which our candidates must be chosen from among the rich, the famous, or those willing to be beholden to others.” So warned Robert F. Kennedy — the senator, not his son who is running for president and just showed the prescience of that long-ago warning.

Last week RFK Jr. named his vice presidential running mate. Nicole Shanahan is an unknown lawyer and activist and . . . oh, let’s be honest. She is a checkbook. Shanahan is the ex-wife of Google founder Sergey Brin. Now that she is on the ticket, she can “self-finance” Kennedy’s campaign with no limits at all. “I’m Feeling Lucky” indeed.

Candidates can spend unlimited funds thanks only to an exception in campaign law gouged out by the Supreme Court in the 1976 case Buckley v. Valeo. Spending cannot be capped, the justices ruled, only contributions can, and then only to stop corruption. Since you can’t bribe yourself, we now have unlimited spending by candidates. Self-regarding self-funders often stumble: as my colleague Ian Vandewalker points out, of the 44 people who spent more than $1 million on themselves in the 2022 midterm, only 6 won. Even so, the Kennedy-Shanahan ticket feels less like strategy than gaslighting. 

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This is all just the most recent example of how the campaign finance system has descended into a garish mess. Last month Donald Trump installed his daughter-in-law as Republican National Committee co-chair in the hope that she will use party funds to pay his criminal lawyers’ fees. (At least when Trump hawks “God Bless the USA” Bibles, he gets the money directly. Rev. Jim Wallis has written that this may earn Trump eternal damnation, but it won’t get him a trip to the Federal Election Commission.)

Amid the grifting, last week’s Radio City Music Hall event featuring Presidents Joe Biden, Barack Obama, and Bill Clinton seemed positively quaint. The $250 tickets for this “grassroots fundraiser,” as it was billed, sold out fast — but if you wanted a photo with the big guys, that would set you back $500,000.  

Since 1996, campaign spending appears to be growing at more than double the rate of inflation — possibly much faster depending on the upcoming campaign. Predictions for 2024 range from $10 billion to a staggering $16 billion. Who knows what scandals, boondoggles, tax loopholes, and more will be buried in that pile of cash? Who knows how many women, young people, and candidates of color choose to sit it out because of this frenzy?

The role of big money in politics is a huge issue, one of the biggest, as it has been throughout American history. Our dystopian system combines endless, grueling fundraising by candidates with vast sums spent by special interests. Small-donor giving is growing, but not nearly as fast as the big money coming from a handful of wealthy donors. Anger about this is nearly universal among citizens. But voters are cynical. They doubt much can be done and are rightly skeptical that politicians will bite the hands that fund them. And given racially motivated voting restrictions, flagrant gerrymandering, the dramatic efforts to overturn the 2020 election, and more, it can be easy to overlook the magnitude of this issue. Only action can cure cynicism. 

The Supreme Court made this mess possible. It goes back well before Citizens United. In fact, Buckley v. Valeo, that half-century-old decision that empowered unlimited candidate financing, needs to be reversed. We’ve supported a constitutional amendment to do just that, so we can once again have reasonable regulation of money in politics. 

There can be action in the states, too. As we’ve written here before, New York State is now implementing the most significant reform nationwide since Citizens United. The state will now have a small donor public financing system that will provide matching funds for small gifts within a candidate’s district. There should be a federal public financing system, too. In fact, for several decades after Watergate, presidential candidates ran using public financing, and the system was far fairer and less corrupt than today.

Congress, which has stood by while our democracy drowns in cash, should act. It came achingly close to doing just that in 2022. The Freedom to Vote Act would have ended “dark money,” the massive spending by undisclosed contributors in election campaigns, and pushed the impotent Federal Election Commission to enforce the campaign finance laws that already exist. The bill passed the House, President Biden was eager to sign it, and it had a majority of the Senate in support. Two Democratic senators, Joe Manchin (WV) and Kyrsten Sinema(AZ), while supporting the bill, would not change Senate rules so that it could pass with a majority. But now every Democratic Senate candidate has pledged to change the rules so democracy reform can pass. Depending on the outcome of the November elections, this bill could become H.R. 1 and S. 1. You will see a vigorous effort to pass it, quickly — and we at the Brennan Center will be part of that effort.

Robert F. Kennedy Sr. had it right. “The mounting cost of political elections is rapidly becoming intolerable for a democratic society, where the right to vote — and to be a candidate — is the ultimate political protection.”  

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