Midterm elections are drowning in money, but there’s no need to worry yet

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With three weeks to go before the midterm elections, the American political system is drowning in cash.

Is that a bad thing? Right now the answer is no, but that’s precisely because this situation is so unusual.

Candidates have now filed their third quarter finance reports detailing what they raised through September, and in some cases the numbers are eye-popping. Most notably in Texas, Democratic Rep. Beto O’Rourke, running to unseat Republican senator Ted Cruz, raised over $38 million, a new quarterly record for a Senate candidate. The story of O’Rourke’s fundraising success – and how some in the Democratic Party have reacted to it – tells us a good deal about how campaigns work in our intensely partisan age.

O’Rourke’s entire candidacy has gone viral, but he has done it a way that isn’t unfamiliar. A young, good-looking, charismatic, idealistic candidate facing an incumbent who is almost none of those things (well, Cruz is young anyway) is able to capture the imagination of voters not just in the state he’s running in but all over the country.

Perhaps most notably, at a moment when anger at President Donald Trump is the most powerful force in our politics, O’Rourke has done it with a relentlessly positive campaign. In September, for instance, 78 percent of the ads aired by Cruz and those supporting him were negative, while 100 percent of O’Rourke’s ads were positive, according to the Wesleyan Media Project.

But since O’Rourke is trailing in the polls by an average of around 7 points, some within the Democratic Party have suggested that he should take part of his massive fundraising haul and give it to other candidates in competitive races, or simply hand it over to the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee so they can distribute it as they see fit. O’Rourke’s fundraising success is due in part to the fact that all politics are now nationalized, so some would like him to return his funds to other places. Yesterday, O’Rourke was asked what he thought of that:

“No,” O’Rourke told a reporter when asked if he would commit to sharing funds with Senate Democratic candidates who are in closer races. “I’m focused on Texas. Most of our contributions have come from Texas. All of them have come from people. Not a dime from PACs.”

This is really the only reasonable position for him to take. First, O’Rourke’s priority is to win, not to help other Senate candidates win. Second, it would be a dramatic break of faith with the hundreds of thousands of people who have donated to his campaign. Imagine you were a Democrat – in Texas or anywhere else – who got inspired by his campaign, sent him a hundred bucks, and then learned that he’d be passing your donation on to some candidate you don’t particularly care about. You probably wouldn’t be too pleased.

And the truth is that it’s hard to find Democrats who are in danger of losing but would win if they could just raise a little more money. According to the New York Times, in the closest House races Democrats have outraised their Republican opponents by $252 million to $172 million. While more money is always better than less, lack of funds is the last problem Democrats face right now.

This election has proven beyond doubt that there isn’t a finite pool of small-donor money available. There are some donors who give in every election, but there are millions of people who will donate only when they feel sufficiently excited – sometimes because they’re inspired and sometimes because they’re mad. Better candidates and an urgent national political situation attract more money. Even before yesterday’s third quarter filings were counted, candidates had already raised just under $4 billion, exceeding what was spent in the entire 2014 race. Even Trump is setting records: His 2020 reelection campaign has brought in over $100 million so far.

And I haven’t even mentioned the billionaires who are pouring cash into this year’s races, like the Koch brothers, Sheldon Adelson, Michael Bloomberg, and Tom Steyer. The paradoxical result of all this money is that who has more money likely won’t make too much of a difference. There’s only so much you can spend, especially on advertising, and once you reach a point of saturation the marginal value of yet another TV ad gets smaller and smaller.

Now let’s step back. Are all these billions of dollars a cause for concern? In some cases the answer is yes, and in some cases the answer is no. O’Rourke, for instance, says he has over 800,000 individual donors. That’s a good thing – donating provides a simple way for people to participate, and it isn’t like he’ll be corrupted by each one of those small donations.

On the other hand, when Sheldon Adelson gives $55 million to help the GOP hold Congress, he expects something in return. He’s already gotten it – his personal windfall from the Republican tax cut was almost $700 million, and according to ProPublica, the president of the United States personally lobbied Japan to grant Adelson a lucrative casino license. That’s exactly the kind of corruption that campaign finance laws are intended to stop.

But there’s a good chance that we aren’t going to have those laws for much longer. As I’ve argued before, given the direction the Supreme Court has been moving and Brett Kavanaugh’s indulgent views on the ability of the super-wealthy to shape politics to their liking, we could see the entire structure of campaign finance regulation dismantled piece by piece in the next few years.

The result could be a situation in which there are no limits on the ability of the wealthy to funnel money to their favored candidates, and little opportunity to track where all the funds are flowing. Only at certain times – like this election – will we see large numbers of ordinary people motivated enough to pool their resources and overwhelm what the big donors are doing.

But it’s the rest of the time, when things are relatively quiet and the public isn’t paying too much attention, that the work of repaying patrons for their support is done. If you aren’t seeing millions of ordinary voters making donations, that’s when you ought to be worried.

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