Big money politics problem comes to the North Country
We live in an era of massive inequality in America. This inequality manifests itself in all facets of our public life, including in our political system. One feature of this political inequality that has not received sufficient attention, though, is geographical. We need to start a conversation about political inequalities between PLACES. Simply put, places with more wealthy people can use their wealth to distort elections in places with fewer very wealthy people – and that happened last week in the Republican primary for Congress in the North Country.
Before we zoom in to see what happened in the North Country, let’s first zoom out to see the larger, national problem of geographic political inequality. We live in a country with staggering degrees of economic inequality across places. In less than 4 square miles of New York City there are more millionaires than in the nearly 49,000 square miles of Mississippi.
This world of geographic economic inequality facilitates political inequality across places. The top 0.01 percent of the income distribution controls 5 percent of total income and close to half of our campaign contributions. The very wealthy do not just contribute more, but also often contribute to elections in places far from their residence.
Putting all of these trends together, it means that a few wealthy donors in one place can distort an election in another place – a place without its own wealthy donors to match. Rather than focusing on the issues that matter locally, big money from elsewhere focuses voters on other issues. Rather than focusing on candidates with local appeal, big money focuses voters on new candidates more tied to big money than to local places. Once in office, the candidate elected by big money from elsewhere might have to answer to that big money and not to local constituents.
As a recent and notable example of this, consider what happened in the Republican primary last week in the North Country. Voters in the North Country selected their Republican nominee to compete for the seat of Rep. Bill Owens, who is retiring. Matthew Doheny, the 2010 and 2012 Republican nominee who lost to Owens, ran against Elise Stefanik, a top national conservative political operative.
To a degree not seen ever before in a North Country primary election, wealthy donors from outside gave major contributions. Stefanik was supported by approximately $800,000 from American Crossroads, an organization facilitated by Karl Rove and supported by billionaires with no ties to the North Country, like Paul Singer. Combined with hundreds of thousands of dollars from the Koch Brothers and other, similar contributors, wealthy donors from outside the North Country supported Stefanik to the tune of more than a million dollars.
In a place like the North Country, that is an enormous sum of money. Approximately $40 was spent by outside organizations for each of the fewer than 27,000 Republican primary voters.
As a result, as one newspaper reported, these wealthy donors from elsewhere “upend(ed)” the race. Stefanik was a strong candidate, with a record as one of the leading young conservative staffers in Washington. Despite what Doheny has claimed, she might have won anyway, and the money from places with more millionaires maybe only increased the margin to a comfortable 20 points or so.
But there are plenty of reasons to think that wealthy donors from elsewhere distorted the race. The evidence from many years and many elections suggests that big money can increase a candidate’s name recognition. Stefanik had very low name recognition and had never before lived full-time in the current district. Evidence suggests that big money can increase turnout, and turnout was twice last week what it was two years ago.
More significantly, the big money from wealthy outside donors distorted the focus of the campaign from important local issues to negative attacks related to national issues. The North Country faces major challenges. The Obama administration is considering significant and problematic cuts to Fort Drum, yet the election was very much about Obamacare and a national Republican majority in the House of Representatives.
The evidence of the influence of wealthy donors might not be apparent until AFTER an election. After an election, when there is less voter attention, wealthy outside donors can change what issues their candidate prioritizes. When major donors like Singer and the Koch brothers indicate their support for federal budget cuts, will Stefanik be able to resist them and their money in the name of Fort Drum or federal support for agriculture? These are issues of particular importance since Stefanik has been hailed as a future statewide or even national political figure. Ensuring that Singer or the Koch brothers still approve what Stefanik is doing will be crucial for any of her future statewide or national efforts.
Wealthy donors from elsewhere distorting an election should be a concern anywhere because of our tradition of self-government. But it should be even more of a concern when that money distorts the politics of places with an honorable political tradition. The North Country is such a place. Local political leaders like retiring Rep. Owens or Republican state legislator Janet Duprey have stood out for their willingness to stand for principle over party. The events of last week therefore threaten to disrupt the local political good for the non-local political bad.
We live in a big country. In that big country, there are still a few special places like the North Country that have resisted unfortunate national trends. One problem with the growing political inequality in our country is that places like the North Country could be overrun by the bank accounts of billionaires elsewhere. We need to start talking about this before the United States of America becomes the One Place of America.
David Fontana, who was raised in Plattsburgh, is an associate professor of law at George Washington University School of Law in Washington, D.C., where he also lives. A longer version of this essay was published in The Huffington Post.