Polarizing Candidates Get Cash Boost in Democratic Vote Bill

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Democrats in Congress are trying to increase the clout of small donors, yet a provision in their voting-rights legislation risks favoring candidates from either party who hold polarizing views and widening ideological divisions on Capitol Hill.

As part of the sweeping voting-rights bill, House candidates who opt into public financing would get a 600% match for individual contributions of as much as $200, a move intended to lessen the power of deep-pocketed backers. Small-dollar donors, however, tend to give more to candidates who draw national attention as firebrands -- meaning the provision could end up rewarding partisanship.

U.S. House members like Georgia Republican Marjorie Taylor Greene, with her viral videos, and New York Democrat Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, with 12.6 million Twitter followers, are each backed by an army of small-dollar donors from outside their districts who cheer their take-no-prisoners approach to politics. Each would benefit from the provision, according to a Bloomberg analysis of their donations.

Polarizing Candidates Get Cash Boost in Democratic Vote Bill

The broader voting-rights bill passed the House on March 8 and is awaiting action in the Senate, where it will need 10 Republican votes to pass. Backers of the small-donor measure say it’s designed to even the playing field for candidates without huge financial networks, but detractors say it will just fuel the rise of candidates more interested in growing social-media followers than governing.

“It will cause absolute chaos,” said Jim Moran, a former Democratic representative from Virginia. Moran, who served as mayor of Alexandria, Va., before entering Congress, said the legislation would give an advantage to inexperienced candidates. “This skips all of that traditional process and empowers people who have a provocative idea and can gain attention.”

Polarizing Candidates Get Cash Boost in Democratic Vote Bill

Moran said he worries that candidates who are unprepared for public office but able to raise a few hundred thousand dollars from their social media followings will, thanks to the federal funds, be able to beat much more experienced and qualified opponents who are less exciting.

Candidates who get the most support from small-dollar donors have national profiles. Among House members, Ocasio-Cortez, a progressive, raised the most from donors giving less than $200, taking 79.5% of her money from them, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.

Yet even so-called establishment members become social-media sensations over a single issue or by their position. Adam Schiff of California, the House Intelligence Committee chairman who led the first impeachment proceeding against former President Donald Trump, earned about 60% of his donations from small-dollar donors. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, another Californian, is in the top 10 of small-dollar recipients.

Among Republicans, those who earn the most from small donors include Representative Jim Jordan of Ohio, a Trump loyalist known for heated questioning during committee hearings, and Greene, who has promoted the QAnon conspiracy theory and whom Trump called a rising star.

Polarizing Candidates Get Cash Boost in Democratic Vote Bill

In the first quarter of 2021, as Democrats stripped her of her committee assignments over incendiary social media posts, Greene broke the House record for an incumbent by raising more than $3.2 million from 100,000 donors, according to a campaign aide, with an average donation of $32. The previous high for the first quarter of a non-election year was the $2.9 million that former House Speaker Paul Ryan raised in 2017.

It’s possible that another member might top her total when candidates report their first quarter numbers to the Federal Election Commission on April 15.

“Even though Congresswoman Greene would benefit due to her massive grassroots support, she remains opposed” to the legislation, her spokeman Nick Dyer said Tuesday, adding that the bill “is a total federal takeover of our election system.”

Ocasio-Cortez did not return messages seeking comment.

Polarizing Candidates Get Cash Boost in Democratic Vote Bill

Less outspoken members of Congress, on the other hand, don’t attract as much support from small-dollar donors. Members of the Problem Solvers Caucus, a bipartisan group of lawmakers who try to craft balanced policy, raised just 9.5% of their re-election funds from contributors giving less than $200.

The Problem Solver Caucus’s chairman, Representative Josh Gottheimer of New Jersey, faced a primary challenge last year from Arati Kreibich, a progressive who raised just under $600,000, about half of that from small donors, while calling Gottheimer “Donald Trump’s congressman” in ads. A six-time match would have given her an extra $1.8 million to air ads against him.

Matching funds are capped for candidates who choose to opt into the system by formula. In the current election cycle, the maximum amount of public funds a candidate could receive would be $6.7 million.

The bill’s sponsor, Representative John Sarbanes of Maryland, says it will bring more donors giving small amounts into the system and bolster the modest totals that less well-known members raise from them. While rhetorical bomb-throwers benefit from the current system, Sarbanes says the matching funds would help moderates.

“They’re the ones that are losing in the current environment,” he said, because they have to rely on special interests and political action committee money to finance their campaigns. “That’s where the matching dollars become very important.”

Sarbanes said the bill was designed to draw in candidates who wouldn’t run because of the cost. “They couldn’t afford to run a viable campaign because they didn’t know people with a lot of money,” he said.

“If you think members of Congress were running scared of compromising, this’ll amp that up,” said Ray La Raja, a political scientist at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. Candidates like Gottheimer, who raised $7.7 million with just 2.4% of that amount coming from small-dollar donors, would have to worry about better-financed opponents from the extreme right or left.

La Raja’s research has shown that small-dollar donors tend to be wealthier, better educated and more partisan than average Americans. “They are as ideological, if not more so on several issues, than large donors,” he said.

Polarizing Candidates Get Cash Boost in Democratic Vote Bill

That doesn’t mean small donors never give to lower-profile candidates, but they tend to be attracted by the bright lights of viral sensations. In 2018, running in a high-profile special election in Pennsylvania, Conor Lamb raised 57% of his money in amounts of $200 or less. Running as an incumbent in 2020, that was down to 17%.

In 2018, small-dollar donors helped Democrats win the House by pouring money to moderate challengers running in Republican-held districts. They also give heavily to candidates running against incumbents who are deeply unpopular with the rival party. For example, John Cummings, a Republican who ran against Ocasio-Cortez, raised $7.8 million in amounts of less than $200, or 70% of the $11.1 million he took in.

Some supporters of public financing worry that basing it on the backs of small-dollar donors would introduce the same kind divisions seen in political social media. “Polarization, notoriety and extremism generate the most attention and the internet donations that follow,” said Rick Pildes, a constitutional-law professor at New York University who has written about small-dollar donors and their effect on candidates.

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