Big Money Dominates in Congressional Primaries

Released by: CoPIRG Foundation

In the wake of the Supreme Court’s decisions undermining campaign finance rules, most notably Citizens United, our elections have become increasingly dominated by large donors, at the expense of ordinary Americans.

Primary elections suffer from the same disparity between big money and small money: even leaving aside Super-PAC-dominated outside spending, which is even more tilted towards the biggest players, candidates relying on small contributions from ordinary citizens are often at a disadvantage compared to those relying on large, often out-of-district donors, or able to self-finance.

Our analysis of fund-raising data from 2014’s congressional primaries examines the way these dynamics are playing out state by state across the country.  We looked at two key factors: first, the proportion of all candidate contributions coming from donations of $1,000 or larger; and second, the number of large donors whose contributions matched all donations by small donors (those giving less than $200), combined. 

While some states show markedly more inequity than others, the picture painted by the data is of a primary money race where large donors carry more weight than ordinary Americans.  Nationwide, just under two thirds of all candidate contributions came from the largest donors (those giving over $1,000).  And fewer than 5,500 large donors matched the primary contributions coming from at least 440,000 donors nationwide.

For our elections to truly reflect the principle of one person, one vote, without deep-pocketed spenders able to drown out the voices of ordinary Americans, we must adopt common-sense reforms to set reasonable limits on big money, and amplify the impact of small donors.  Fortunately, there is a strong and growing movement to overturn the Citizens United decision and reverse the wrong-headed ruling that money is speech and corporations are people.  Already 16 states and over 550 communities have gone on the record calling for a constitutional amendment to do exactly that.

There are also successful models already in place to empower small donors to allow their voices to play a more central role in our democracy, such as providing tax credits and public matching funds for small donations. For example, in New York City’s 2013 City Council campaigns, small donors were responsible for 61% of participating candidates’ contributions, when funds from a matching program are included. In 2009, all but two of the 51 winning candidates in the City Council elections participated in the small donor program, proving that candidates are able to raise the money they need to win without relying on large-dollar contributions.  Just a few weeks ago, Montgomery County, Maryland, became the latest community to adopt one of these programs.

If primaries simply select the candidate with the most appeal to big donors, our democracy will suffer. Reforms are needed to make sure all of our voices count.

Among our findings for Colorado:

  • Small donors contributed a little over $2.8 million combined to the candidates in Colorado’s congressional primaries. However, just 457 large donors matched that total, contributing as much as the at least 14,183 small donors combined in its congressional primaries, ranking Colorado 14th in terms of inequity. The state with the greatest inequity between small and large donors was Texas, with a single large donor (a self-financed candidate) exceeding all small contributions from a minimum of 8,767 small donors.
  • Nationwide, fewer than 5,500 large donors outspent at least 440,000 small donors.  If that were a single race, it would mean that a candidate who got 10,000 people to give a donation would lose out in the money race to someone who only got 125 contributions.
  • In terms of the percentage of primary funds coming from large donors, Colorado came in 27th at 64%; the top slot was taken by Texas, with 80% of primary contributions coming from large donors.

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