There were a number of competitive Senate races last year, Democrats ended up shocking Republicans in the Great Lakes and Sunbelt, while Republicans were able to do fairly well in the Midwest. Independent experts have described this midterm cycle as “the most expensive in history” with over $5 billion dollars spent on organizing and ads. We’ve grown accustomed to high-dollar spending in competitive races, but what’s happening in a state like Wyoming which hasn’t historically been competitive? No Democratic presidential candidate has carried Wyoming since 1964, so one might imagine that the state would be immune to the gratuitous levels of spending that we’ve seen in Missouri. Yet, incumbent senator John Barrasso raised over $7 million dollars and spent over $5 million on his race which had not even the slightest chance of being competitive.
Barrasso’s race isn’t an outlier, there are a number of noncompetitive races where favored candidates spent ungodly amounts of money. Sen. Mazie Hirono (D) of Hawaii has spent over $3 million, Mitt Romney (R) of Utah has spent nearly $5 million, and Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D) of Massachusetts spent an eye popping $20.4 million. There’s simply an unconscionable amount of money in politics and the tactics campaigns have been using to fundraise border on the ridiculous (Something Arthur Lieber has written about at length here and here). The numbers get even more extreme when we look into the actually competitive races. In Texas, Beto O’Rourke spent $60 million to lose to Sen. Ted Cruz (R). In Missouri, Sen. Claire McCaskill (D) spent $33 million to lose to Josh Hawley. In Florida, Rick Scott had to spend $66 million to barely beat Sen. Bill Nelson (D).
Which poses an interesting question…why the hell are we spending so much money on campaigns and was it always like this? The answer to the first question isn’t overly complicated. In politics there aren’t a whole lot of quantitative measurements, metrics that have numbers and not only measure success but can be understood by voters. Of course, we have poll numbers, but voters already follow those and campaigns have essentially no control over the polls. So, when there aren’t any meaningful things to measure, you begin to measure things that were previously meaningless that you’ve decided to assign meaning to; money. A negative consequence of our decision to use money to measure success means that we’ve prioritized fundraising numbers over important things that are hard to quantify like policy positions or authenticity. Our present situation is reminiscent of Vietnam when the military began tracking “body counts” to produce some misleading characterization about American strength throughout the war. We’re at the point that voters ask candidates “how much money have you raised” and we have countdown clocks to await the end of quarter fundraising numbers, the party apparatuses are pushing candidates harder and harder to beg for money and the candidates oblige because the donor-industrial complex demands that they do.
Now as to the question of is this the way it has always been, the answer is no. Believe it or not, there was once a time where the media didn’t report on campaign contributions and knowing your constituents was enough to get re-elected. Before there was Citizens United or CNN or ActBlue or email, there was Bill Proxmire.
Sen. William Proxmire was the longest serving senator from Wisconsin, in office from 1957 until 1989, succeeding Ted Cruz lookalike and anti-communist crusader Joseph McCarthy. Proxmire did not do the rubber chicken circuit nor did he send out solicitations for campaign donations in his last two campaigns. In fact, Proxmire returned campaign donations and typically only spent $200 on each of his campaigns and that money was earmarked for postage to return donations. Proxmire wasn’t necessarily the exception, many of his contemporaries didn’t spend time dialing for dollars. Until 1976 when the Supreme Court decided Buckley v. Valeo there were very few enforced rules on spending and fundraising which allowed for some obviously unethical activities, namely the slush fund utilized by the Committee to Re-elect the President during Watergate. However most established politicians like Birch Bayh in Indiana or Frank Church in Idaho simply went about the business of legislating with the assumption that doing their jobs well would be enough. Which was true to an extent, from 1970 until 1990 incumbent senators could expect to outperform the partisanship of their state somewhere between 11 to 22 points compared to less than 3 points in 2018.
Proxmire in the elections where he eschewed campaign donations was still re-elected by large margins, 29 points in 1982 and 46 points in 1976. This is more impressive when one remembers that Proxmire was a Democrat and Wisconsin supported Republican Presidential Candidates in every election from 1952 through 1984 with the exception of a narrow Carter victory in 1976 and LBJ’s landslide in 1964. Of course, partisanship was not as high nor were the parties as fractured 40 years ago as they are today, however what Proxmire figured out then could still be true today and that is if you prioritize your principles over getting re-elected that can endear you to voters. Proxmire was famous for his monthly “Golden Fleece Awards” where he listed what he believed to be a particularly jarring use of government money like thousands of dollars spent to study why people fall in love or a study by the army on how to purchase Worcester sauce. But perhaps even more important than principle is authenticity and voters will forgive you for being wrong so long as you give it to them straight. Which is important because Proxmire was not always on the side of progress (but perhaps neither were the people of Wisconsin), he was opposed to busing, spending on public works projects that he deemed “frivolous”, and he supported the Vietnam War way longer than was politically necessary.
Proxmire was visible around Wisconsin, he visited VFW halls, he marched in parades, and he was interviewed by local papers. It’s hard to imagine this now but there was a time when our members of Congress simply went to Washington but were not of Washington. Proxmire was of course a larger figure in his day, not towering like Robert Byrd or Bob Dole, but big nonetheless and that certainly helps when running for re-election. But being well known isn’t everything, Tom Daschle found that out being Senate minority leader doesn’t mean you can’t lose re-election which happened to him in 2004. Being visible also doesn’t guarantee success, in Missouri Claire McCaskill held more than 50 townhalls just to lose 109 out of 115 counties.
So, the larger more important question is what changed? Ryan Grim discusses the emergence of big money in his book We’ve Got People: From Jesse Jackson to AOC, the End of Big Money and the Rise of a Movement. The moral majority and the election of 1980 permanently changed the calculus of the Democratic Party which until then had succeeded largely on the strength of organized labor. The election of 1980 was a very good year for Republicans and for the first time since 1952 they’d won control of the US Senate. This was a result that stunned Democrats but leadership still didn’t fully see the writing on the wall and there was an assumption that they would never lose the House because a so-called “blue wall” had been amassed that was insurmountable. From 1930 until 1980 Democrats controlled the House 46 out of 50 years and hadn’t lost control since 1952. Previously the organizing theory of the party was to register the most people and incentivize them to the polls, ideally with hope but occasionally with fear. However, this historic loss lead some to believe in a new theory, that raising more money than the GOP and spending it on ads or consultants and targeting voters could produce majorities. So, starting in 1980 Democrats started turning to Wall Street and other corporate interests for money and the natural consequence was a monetary arms race between both parties trying to out fundraise each other which is how we’ve arrived to our current state of affairs, made worse by a few particularly heinous SCOTUS decisions.
So, can a candidate do what Proxmire did and still win? Are elections now won on money instead of ideas? Even the examples we have of the underdog beating the more monied competitor like Donald Trump in 2016 or Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez in 2018, those candidates still raised huge sums (Trump raised $333 million to Clinton’s $563 million and Ocasio-Cortez raised $600 thousand to Crowley’s $3 million). Are the parties so polarized that it’s simply not enough to be effective in Congress or represent the views of your constituents? In 2018 we saw a particularly animated electorate where races were decided purely on what party had more voters as split ticketing disappeared in many states. Voters and their elected members are more partisan now than at any time since the civil war which likely means the era of landslide victories built on bipartisan majorities is over for the foreseeable future.
This chart displays the partisanship in each house of congress. The lines represent the ideological distance between the average Democratic member and the average Republican member. The distance today is greater than any time since the end of Reconstruction.
It’s worth noting that as was alluded to at the beginning of this article, every state isn’t competitive. Proxmire himself said “I think fully two-thirds of the senators could get re-elected without spending a penny.” and he very well have been right, Idaho likely isn’t electing any Democrats soon and Hawaii almost certainly isn’t sending any Republicans to Washington. The same can be said of probably 200 house seats give or take a dozen. So, for the majority of cases, Proxmire would be right. However, there are a good number of seats in the Senate and the House, enough to decide control of either chamber, that are competitive and so the question of money and fair elections is still relevant.
This is all to say that as our system currently exists, it is not possible to recreate the successes of Sen. Proxmire everywhere. However, our system does not have to carry on as it has been and some states are experimenting with ways to bring people back into democracy. In 1995 Maine enacted the Maine Clean Election Act (MCEA) which established a voluntary program of full public financing of political campaigns for candidates running for Governor, State Senator, and State Representative. Before Citizens United v. FEC there was a point when a full 85% of members of the legislature were elected using this system. It’s clear that in our current political eco-system it would be impossible to achieve Proxmire style campaigns for a number of reasons, even in non-competitive states where politicians are forced to fundraise if not for themselves then for the party and are punished for refusing. But perhaps we can look toward a system of public financing which could still create expensive races, but it would also lead to more open and transparent races. Public financing would also allow a more diverse crop of candidates. Continuing to use Maine as an example, 7 out of 10 women stated that the MCEA was very important in their decision to run.
The way forward for politics has to involve reducing the role of money or inevitably our democracy will morph into a corporate kleptocracy if that transition has not already occurred.