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David Donnelly Headshot

One Billion Dollars

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An army of journalists, bloggers, and advocates armed with tax filings and spreadsheets have spent countless hours trying to expose and excoriate those financing all of the front groups estimated to spend $400 million this election cycle. We may not know who they are yet, but it doesn't take a rocket scientist to figure it out. They are the same corporate special interests that have been fighting the progressive agenda for years -- Wall Street bankers, oil and coal companies, insurance executives, and conservative business magnates. But the focus on figuring out who these donors are, without discussing what they're doing to our democracy is shortsighted.

Yes, the funding has put dozens of new House races in play, defined elections on terms favorable to Republican candidates, and driven the national narrative of an ascendant conservative campaign to take over Congress. Yet one of the biggest impacts of this outside money is collateral damage it is having on the way that candidates and campaigns have had to respond in kind. And it's a story that's largely gone untold.

I'm not speaking of the personal pain and suffering a candidate must face when he or she wakes up to see a grainy picture of themselves with an ominous announcer claiming that they're practically un-American. I'm talking about how the pressure caused by this outside secret money and our broken campaign finance system forces candidates to spend an inordinate amount of time begging for money from wealthy people.

Public Campaign Action Fund (from data obtained from the Center for Responsive Politics) projects that the 2010 election cycle will be the first one in which House candidates will raise and spend more than a BILLION dollars collectively--a record breaking number. In fact, if their fundraising and spending pace continues at the same rate for the remainder of 2010 as candidates set in 2008, fundraising will reach nearly $1.3 billion and spending will exceed $1.4 billion. Coupled with Senate spending, it is possible that spending on federal races by candidates will hit $2 billion.

There are many factors at play here, all leading to congressional candidates spending more time courting big donors and less time courting everyday voters. First, with some 90 to 100 congressional races in play, there are many more candidates this cycle desperately seeking money. Second, incumbent politicians have squirreled away money, which forces any challenger to focus exclusively on early fundraising if they are to attract any national help.

And lastly, the amount of outside, secret money has forced candidates to hit the phones lest they lose complete control of their own election campaigns to faceless national front groups. This outside money has broadened the playing field, creating a torrent of cash to Republican challengers whose names and districts were unknown to the donor class just a few months, or even weeks, ago. (The impact in raw numbers can be found on our website.)

That's why focusing on the outside secret money misses the full story of what is happening in races all over the country. Increased fundraising from wealthy donors, coupled with the secret outside money, puts our elections further into the hands of relatively few Americans.

In this current system, members of Congress can't raise the kind of money required, do their jobs representing constituents, work on legislation important to America and their districts, and campaign for re-election by meeting with voters. It's just not possible to do all those things well.

The answer to this doesn't lie in disclosing where the outside money is coming from, though that'd be good to pass as legislation. The answer lies in getting candidates off the fundraising treadmill, and to place elections back into the hands of everyday Americans.

And Democrats have every incentive to do that after a bruising cycle. Outside spending, as we all know, is favoring Republicans by a wide margin this year. After an early Democratic dominance this election cycle in fundraising totals, Republican candidates have caught up and surpassed them. By the end of the third quarter, Republican House candidates had outraised Democrats by more than $30 million. That gap is sure to grow in the last part of the campaign.

What Democrats need to do is declare that this madness is over. They shouldn't whine or complain. Just declare that the days of special interest control of Washington are numbered. Come back to Washington and pass the Fair Elections Now Act and whatever pieces of the DISCLOSE Act that are possible.

Whether they are in the majority or minority in 2011, Democrats should make the case to America that Congress can't work to get the nation back to work when its members are spending too much time raising money and courting the big money players to keep their own jobs.