OPINION: The Perks And Pitfalls Of Self-Funded Politics

A black and white graphic of the Capitol Building on the left, three people labelled "P," "A" and "C" respectively on the left and a person in the middle holding a bag of money.
Graphic by Cassie Wang

A few young, diverse, candidates who represent the more progressive component of the Democratic Party are choosing not to self-fund their campaigns or rely on political action committee (PAC) donations. Their strategy poses a threat to aging white Republican political donors who have invested enormous amounts of money into politics out of fear of losing power. Candidates relying on small donations from individual donors to seem more relatable take a huge risk, but that risk should get more recognition than it currently does.

Two 2010 Supreme Court cases, Citizens United vs. FEC and then SpeechNow.org vs. FEC, allowed individuals to give an unlimited amount of money to political campaigns through corporations called PACs. Political donors like Sheldon Adelson, Robert Mercer, and Charles and David Koch seized the momentum and stocked up their PAC warchests, raising $176.5 million for Republican candidates in the 2010 midterm elections, which ushered in a new era of pronounced “dark money” in American politics. These billionaire, hedge fund, and climate change deniers hold an unfathomable and unjust amount of political influence because of their wealth and dominion when it comes to maintaining power. None of these men have any interest in working to benefit any other group of people but themselves.

Money is too much of a key determinant in a politician’s success. The Koch brothers have so far invested $400 million into the 2018 midterm elections alone, of which $20 million went to ad buys promoting Paul Ryan’s draconian tax bill.

Tom Steyer, the more ethical Democratic Koch equivalent, has invested $30 million into a lobbying organization to increase millennial voter turnout. While millennial voter turnout is key to Democratic victory in the midterm elections, Steyer has not invested in a Democratic media blitz upholding progressive economic values on a scale even remotely similar to the Koch brothers, which could be necessary to combat their polarizing television and digital ads.

Beto O’Rourke, a Democratic Congressman from Texas challenging incumbent senator Ted Cruz, is one of two politicians currently elected to the House of Representatives that have pledged not to take money from a leadership PAC, which is unheard of in the current political climate. His choice to rely on individual donations and smaller gifts makes him seem more accessible than Ted Cruz, which is admirable, but risky because it may not pay off his fundraising deficit, similar to other candidates this cycle.

O’Rourke’s campaign social media pages are full of photos and videos of him going on early morning runs with voters, eating late night food with college kids, and speaking openly on protecting “Dreamers,” marijuana legalization, and Medicare for all. He has pledged to visit all of Texas’s counties and make stops in towns where no Senate candidate has gone in decades. His family photos posted on his Twitter page are clearly authentic because his children look surprised that he is taking a photo; he seems normal, like he could be your neighbor running early in the morning with his dog.

Sam Jammal, a Democratic House of Representatives candidate for in California’s 39th Congressional District, a 15-minute drive from Claremont and currently represented by retiring Republican Ed Royce, has the most experience in government working as a Congressional chief of staff and as a part of the Obama administration’s Department of Commerce. However, because he has chosen not to invest any of his own money into his campaign, he is at a deficit of visibility and risks not becoming a nominee in the general election. One of his challengers in the primary has raised $2 million and has never worked in politics before, whereas Sam has not even raised $200,000.

O’Rourke’s and Jammal’s campaigns are two examples that illustrate the Democratic Party’s crisis of relatability: Candidates all over the country want to talk with underrepresented communities to increase voter turnout and not follow conventional fundraising methods but, at the same time, run the risk of not appealing to moderates or potential swing voters, key in a state like Texas or a mixed Congressional district.

The two sides of this crisis should not be irreconcilable differences. Politicians should not have to make a conscious choice to follow the Bernie Sanders fundraising model, only go to rural towns, and subsequently forget people who live in urban areas. Both politicians and the liberal media should treat the electorate as a more inclusive, diverse, and equally valuable group.

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