Report: Reclaiming Our Democracy

Look Who's Not Coming to Washington

Qualified Candidates Shut Out by Big Money
Released by: U.S. PIRG Education Fund

Large contributions made by a small fraction of Americans unduly influence who runs for office and who wins elections in the United States. Without personal wealth or access to networks of wealthy contributors, many qualified and credible candidates are locked out of contention for federal office—often before voters have the opportunity to register their preferences or hear competing points of view. 

Money was as important to candidates in the most recent congressional elections as it has ever been. Our analysis of Federal Election Commission (FEC) campaign finance data for the 2004 election cycle reveals the following: 

- Ninety-one (91) percent of 2004 congressional primary candidates who raised the most money won their races. 

- Sixty-five (65) percent of all congressional primary elections were uncontested. Anecdotal evidence suggests the role of money in campaigns plays a significant part in discouraging candidates from running. 

- Sixty-three (63) percent of 2004 congressional primary candidates’ individual donations came in contributions of at least $1,000—from just 0.08 percent of the voting-age population. 

Moreover, according to the Federal Election Commission, campaign fundraising continues to increase at a rate greater than inflation. Winning congressional candidates raised nearly 50 percent more in the 2004 cycle than in a comparable period during the 2002 cycle. 

In order to put a human face on this data, we surveyed federal candidates who dropped out of races, lost primaries, or lost general elections. The candidates profiled in this report cite money as a primary reason why they lost or pulled out of their races entirely. Many of the unsuccessful candidates profiled are at least as credible and qualified as the eventual winners. What they lack is something altogether different—personal wealth, access to networks of wealthy donors, or policy positions that appeal to large contributors. 

Several candidates made powerful statements about the state of our democracy and our campaign finance system: 

“Democracy should never be for sale to the highest bidder. But democracy IS for sale to the highest bidder—and our democracy is very ill served as a result. … There’s never been real campaign finance reform, only campaign finance reform perpetrated by the good ol’ boys and girls, which puts those without wealth at a disadvantage and prohibits them from challenging the status quo.” 
- Charmaine Caccioppi, Democratic Candidate in Louisiana’s 3rd District Open Primary 

“The sad thing is that in America today if it’s going to take $2 million to win, then normal people can’t run anymore. You either have to be very, very wealthy or very, very bought.” 
- Janice Bowling, Republican Nominee for Tennessee’s 4th District 

“[The system] protects incumbents because there’s so much money in the system. Money is tilted towards incumbents, so there’s huge financial disincentives [for challengers] . . . Being a maverick outsider is not realistic when you’re up against a $1 million ad buy.” 
- Jeff Steinborn, Democratic Primary Candidate in New Mexico’s 2nd District 

“[Running for Congress] is such a daunting task that it becomes a huge barrier for ordinary people who want to run. It’s a business—you need a professional fundraiser ... We have a professional political class [in Congress] and we have a professional political class getting them elected. Outsiders need not apply.” 
- Mark Binder, Democratic Primary Candidate in Rhode Island’s 1st District 

“[Fundraising] is a big hurdle. I know a lot of people who would run—and I know people who have run once, but then can’t do it again because they owe money [as a result].” 
- Dr. Inam Rahman, Republican Primary Candidate in Hawaii’s 2nd District 

“My opponent raised 65 percent of his money from outside special interests at $10,000 a whack, while I’m collecting money from Sally and Joe.” 
- Brian Hamel, Republican Nominee for Maine’s 2nd District 

“[Our campaign finance system] benefits incumbents who are in safe districts and are in a position to really help some very narrow special interests. In a broader sense, it hurts everybody because it naturally makes [officeholders] inclined to give better service to those who give [them] more money. Representation is supposed to be one vote per person, not based on how much money you have…If you took the money out of politics, it would change the whole dynamic and produce a much healthier, more responsive, democracy.” 
- Ben Konop, Democratic Nominee for Ohio’s 4th District 

“If we think we are a democracy, we’re deluding ourselves . . . We purport to be an example of democracy around the world, but in fact we have an oligarchy . . . I would hope and pray that we can take can take money out of politics . . .” 
- Leigh Pomeroy, Democratic-Farmer- Labor Party Nominee for Minnesota’s 1st District

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