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Barron’s, the weekly Wall Street newspaper, is bucking conventional wisdom by predicting that the Republicans will retain control of the U.S. House and Senate.
How does it justify its analysis?
“We studied every single race — all 435 House seats and 33 in the Senate — and based our predictions about the outcome in almost every race on which candidate had the largest campaign war chest, a sign of superior grass-roots support. We ignore the polls. … Pollsters, for instance, have upstate New York Republican Rep. Tom Reynolds trailing Democratic challenger Jack Davis, who owns a manufacturing plant. But Reynolds raised $3.3 million in campaign contributions versus $1.6 million for Davis, so we score him the winner.”
That formulation sounds like satire. Sure, the voters might express a preference for Davis, but Reynolds has more money, so he’s obviously going to win.
And like any good satire, there is a significant amount of truth in Barron’s logic. As the article points out, the candidate with the most money has won 98 percent of the U.S. House races and 89 percent of the U.S. Senate contests in recent years.
Unfortunately, Barron’s is deadly serious. (They weren’t even being sarcastic when they said that a stocked campaign treasury is “a sign of superior grass-roots support,” as counter-intuitive as that sounds.)
But whether or not Barron’s congressional forecast is proven correct, its theory will likely hold true in Arkansas this year, where the statewide candidates with the most money are expected to win.
In fact, that may be the story of the 2006 elections.
With only two notable exceptions — the Republican primary for lieutenant governor and the Democratic primary for treasurer — financing has made the difference in every race.
The standout example is the Democratic primary for lieutenant governor, where money is the only way to explain the outcome. In that case, Bill Halter defeated three current and former state legislators despite not having lived in Arkansas for over two decades. Halter didn’t have much support among the party establishment, but he spent almost $900,000 and used it to blanket the airwaves with commercials that apparently had the desired effect.
The effect on Arkansas politics, however, is another matter. One candidate for statewide office who lost in the primary told me he thinks money was the sole factor in his race, and he said he probably wouldn’t stand for office again if he knew his opponent would outspend him exponentially.
Often, that kind of spending involves personal debt. Halter, for instance, loaned himself $700,000 just for the primary. Other candidates have put up their personal assets as collateral for bank loans or lines of credit for their campaigns.
In effect, they are tying their family’s financial security to their ability to raise campaign funds to retire the debt. So when they ask someone to give money to their campaign, they’re really asking them for a bailout. And if the loan is called or the line of credit runs out, they might just do anything for a campaign donation.
According to Arkansas News Bureau columnist John Brummett, “Bill Halter recently canceled some of his television time … because his new and pregnant wife suggested quite sensibly that he put a lid on the rate of depletion of his ample personal resources.”
That’s some serious pressure. But when election outcomes are based on who spends the most money, it is no wonder that the winners are those willing to leverage themselves the most.
As a result, our political system only caters to those who can give the most to campaigns. That’s why so much time and energy was devoted to the attempted repeal of the estate tax, which affects less than one percent of Americans (the very richest). And that’s why there is no progress on health care, energy policy and other issues that everyone but the wealthiest citizens and corporations are deeply concerned about.
These days, our government only responds to monied interests, who can underwrite think tanks to introduce ideas, public relations campaigns to promote them and lobbyists to pay legislators to vote for them.
In this way, our supposedly democratic system is fundamentally distorted. While the problem of money in politics is nothing new, it has recently achieved the level of grotesque, with office-holders spending all of their time fundraising and candidates with pregnant wives risking their fortunes because newspapers can predict election results based on how much money a campaign has.
Now the only people able to run for office are the fabulously rich or those willing to do their bidding.
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