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The Gristle

Downstream, down ballot

Wednesday, October 31, 2012

DOWNSTREAM, DOWN BALLOT: Presidential elections have a way of drawing attention and oxygen from other parts of our democratic process. Early predictions suggested the Citizens United decision by the U.S. Supreme Court would unleash a hurricane and storm surge of unbalancing, semi-anonymous corporate money purchasing our national elections. The Court’s ruling in 2010 allows such spending without limits, and sometimes without identifying contributors, bundled into SuperPACs. But the influence of SuperPAC money flooding on the presidential race has proven unpersuasive, offset as it is by direct campaign spending and activities and by the constant thrum of free media attention on this race. The unwinding of those particular dire predictions seems to’ve relaxed public outcry against the corrosive effects of unlimited corporate money in politics… until one begins to examine those effects on quieter state and local elections, each receiving comparatively smaller direct donations and substantially less media coverage.

These are the people who actually write laws and direct policy in this country—not the president!

The Center for Responsive Politics, a research group that operates the Open Secrets database of federal campaign spending and lobbying data, estimates that dark money from SuperPACs and other groups has exceeded $1 billion for 2012. With spending caps, disclosure requirements, and filing deadlines for state and local elections, the influence of corporate money in Washington is comparatively less dark, more easily traced and understood (and therefore less corrosive than in federal elections), but its leveraging effects are still felt in those races.

The imbalance is acute in Whatcom County’s once-competitive 42nd Legislative District, where Republican incumbents Jason Overstreet and Vincent Buys have received nearly one-quarter—one dollar in four—of their campaign contributions from corporate donors outside the state. By contrast their challengers, Democrats Natalie McClendon and Matt Krogh, have received less than 10 percent of their campaign contributions from outside the area. None of the Democrats’ outside contributions were from corporate donors.

The source of those outside donations are frequent lobbyists in Olympia—SSA Marine and the Burlington-Northern Railway company, Walmart and other big-box retailers, tobacco and pharmaceutical companies, energy and telecom interests, timber and mining interests, and other supporters of ALEC, the American Legislative Exchange Council, a consortium of powerful corporations and fundamentalist conservatives intent on reframing government into a “public-private partnership,” a euphemism for looting the public treasury for private benefit.

The effect on the campaigns? Republicans each have more than $10,000 more to spend in this local election than their Democratic challengers. Rep. Jason Overstreet has amassed $68,700 versus Natalie McClendon’s $51,400, according to campaign disclosure records. Similarly,  Rep. Vincent Buys has $74,400 versus Matt Krogh’s $64,400. Put a different way, the Democratic challengers have received a total of $8,200 in out-of-state money; the Republican incumbents have received $31,700 in money outside the state, a 4-to-1 imbalance.

An equally important metric, as a measure of representative democracy, are smaller contributions of under $100, which we’ve argued are an indicator of grassroots community support and the organizing energy of a campaign. There, Buys is a startling standout, with fewer than 40 percent of his contributions arriving from grassroots sources. And while Overstreet is comparable to the two Democrats in overall percentages of smaller contributions, the number of contributions he’s received from grassroots supporters is less than a third of what McClendon and Krogh have received in small donations. In other words, while the incumbents have far more to spend, the sources (and diversity) of this money are fewer.

We like to imagine the Republican and Democratic parties and candidates are reciprocal mirrors of one another. They are not. Ds are locked into small districts in hypermajorities, their voting power to dynamically influence democracy actually wasted in overwhelming numbers; Rs are thinly spread in rural areas, their physical numbers offset by corporate money. It’s a widening trend in recent elections, but the mechanism is surely baked right into our founding documents and the way we assign representation.

Yet despite the money imbalance in a rejiggered conservative district, and despite the commanding ten-point leads by Republican incumbents logged in the 42nd District primary last August, there’s reason to believe these races are still in play.

One week out from the election, Whatcom County Auditor Debbie Adelstein reports ballots are being received at a brisk pace, with more than a quarter of the ballots already returned. As of Monday, more than 31,000 ballots returned of an estimated 124,550 ballots mailed to registered voters. Voter turnout in the August primary was a torpid 48 percent; turnout projections for a dynamically charged presidential election are expected more on the order of 84 percent, much greater numbers of registered voters involved. Additionally, there are ballot measures guaranteed to stir interest from the left without stirring reciprocal resistance from the right. The president leads strongly in Washington, with no energizing challenge for Maria Cantwell’s senate race and a dearth of conservative interest in state races to the immediate south. Each of these latter factors could influence fall-off and ballot fatigue, a measure of voters’ interest in fully completing a complicated and largely unengaging ballot.

Money ain’t everything in politics; but it is way ahead of whatever is in second place.

A tip of the pen to Ryan Ferris, who suggested this topic and supplied the financial data to the Gristle. See his analysis at http://www.bellingham-wa-politics-economics.blogspot.com

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