Colin Allred, a former NFL player now in his third term in the US House, plans to give up a safe Texas seat to take on Ted Cruz for the US Senate in 2024. He is probably Democrats’ best hope to challenge the Republican incumbent. While his bid, announced ON Wednesday, is a long shot, Allred’s candidacy is proof that the torrent of money involved in political campaigns, and specifically the huge number of small-scale donations, has been a boon for American democracy.
A lot of people have been critical of the unprecedented sums of cash that even US House campaigns now raise from donors who give under $200. The surge in small donations, especially in non-presidential elections, has occurred over the last decade thanks to the ease of online fundraising. Raphael Warnock raised a staggering $81 million from small donors in 2022, about 45 per cent of the total, during his successful quest for one of Georgia’s Senate seats. Plenty of House candidates in that election cycle raised $2 million or even $3 million that way — far more, in all cases, than such candidates could raise from all sources before fundraising went online.
How small donors can help campaigns
The first campaign famous for relying on small donors was Jerry Brown’s go-nowhere presidential run in 1992, which asked supporters to call an 800 number to donate. Howard Dean’s slightly more successful 2004 presidential campaign was the pioneer for raising shockingly large amounts over the internet. Key to the whole thing is the low overhead; before the internet, campaigns could solicit relatively small donations, but it was costly to do so and therefore not worth bothering for $20 or $50 cheques.
To sceptics, the gusher of small-bore campaign donations has elevated fringe candidates who either have no chance of winning, thus “wasting” the money, or who might win their races but have no interest in actually governing. This, critics say, is how you wind up with, say, Representative Marjorie Taylor Greene. The rise in small donations also hasn’t curbed the influence of wealthy corporations and individuals.
But the fear about new money in campaigns is misplaced. Well-funded campaigns are good for democracy, and small donations are a healthy way to raise it.
The political system is healthier if Democrats in Kentucky or Texas and Republicans in California are able to mount real campaigns and help sustain opposition parties in places where they are unlikely to win.
For elections to be meaningful, they need to be seriously contested. Too often in the US, this has only been true in the most competitive districts. Without real campaigns, the winners have little incentive to do the hard work of representation, which involves making promises during the campaign about what they will do and how they will act if elected.
The new small money hasn’t kept big money from wealthy people and large interests out of politics; indeed, the courts have loosened restrictions on big money. But small money leaves candidates far less dependent on a relatively small group of well-funded interests.
New sources of campaign financing
There is no question that new sources of campaign financing have produced more genuine campaigns. Consider Texas’s Senate races. Beto O’Rourke raised $80 million to take on Cruz in 2018, much of it from small Democratic donors. While O’Rourke narrowly lost, his was the best showing by a Democrat running against an incumbent senator in Texas in decades.
Allred might not match O’Rourke’s total, but without ready small money, Allred probably wouldn’t even be making the attempt to unseat Cruz.
Compare the O’Rourke-Cruz matchup with the contest for the same Senate seat in 2006. Then-Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison spent $6.6 million; her obscure opponent spent all of $1.4 million. Six years before that, a perennial candidate with the celebrity-like name of Gene Kelly won the Democratic primary because no one else had the money to spend on a vanity campaign; Kelly spent less than $5,000 in the general election.
A criticism of small-scale donations is that they encourage political publicity stunts to grab donors’ attention, whether it’s a committee hearing appearance that goes viral or a member of Congress who yells at the president during the State of the Union address. But politics has always had flashy campaigners.
It’s true that donations from small donors sometimes sap funds and energy that might be better deployed elsewhere. That was the case in 2020 when Kentucky’s Amy McGrath spent a whopping $56 million in small donations, more than half the $96 million total raised for her campaign, yet lost badly to then-Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. But all sources of campaign financing have inefficiencies. And the political system is healthier if Democrats in Kentucky or Texas and Republicans in California are able to mount real campaigns and help sustain opposition parties in places where they are unlikely to win.
There are plenty of reasons to worry about the state of US democracy. Small money isn’t one of them.
Jonathan Bernstein is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering politics and policy.