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Small Donors Still Small in Congressional Races

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While pundits argue whether issues in the presidential race will travel down ballot to Congressional races, new data from the Campaign Finance Institute shows that the so-called "small donor revolution" definitely has not.

While some presidential candidates have been able to harness small donors at greater levels this cycle than previous years, Congressional races have seen no similar increase, according to the Campaign Finance Institute (CFI). In fact, the proportion of money that candidates for the U.S. House and Senate raise from small donors has steadily declined in recent years.

Of the more than 1,000 registered candidates running for a U.S. House seat, less than 10 percent of the $447 million raised between January 2007 and March 2008 came from donations under $200, according to the study. In 2000, the figure was 15 percent.

Candidates running for Congress--incumbents and challengers, Republicans and Democrats--still have to rely on those who can write four figure checks and bundle big sums of cash for their campaigns.

This reliance on big donors is nothing new, of course. Working families and others unable to give a maxed out donation don't get the attention of candidates. Instead, in order to meet their fundraising goals, candidates spend most of their time with the wealthy and politically well connected.

My organization, Public Campaign Action Fund, is working to get candidates for Congress to go on the record in favor a system of full public financing of elections--or "Clean Elections" campaign reform. We're asking them to sign the "Voters First Pledge" endorsing a bill that would provide full public financing of elections for all congressional races.

Modeled on the successful Clean Elections systems in the states, candidates for Congress would qualify for a public grant by collecting a set number of small qualifying contributions. Once qualified candidates must forgo all fundraising and adhere to strict spending limits. Because Clean Elections supercharges small donors, contributions from people like nurses and schoolteachers have as much importance as those from wealthy executives.

Michael Malbin, executive director of CFI got it right when he said, "the role of the Internet and the growing role of small donors in the presidential race are healthy signs for democratic participation. But the congressional numbers show that there is a long, long way to go before we can walk away and declare 'problem solved.'"

In a cycle being dominated by stories of the access and influence of campaign contributors, candidates hoping for a job in Washington in 2009 should pledge their support for Clean Elections modeled campaign reform.