Report: Reclaiming Our Democracy

The Wealth Primary 2004

The Role of Big Money in the 2004 Congressional Primaries
Released by: U.S. PIRG Education Fund

In our 2002 analysis of the effects of money on the congressional primary elections, we found that large contributions—which only a tiny group of Americans can afford to make—unduly influence which candidates run for office and win elections in the United States. While wealthy donors ensure that candidates who share their views pass through the fundraising crucible, the rest of the American public is often left without representatives to advocate on their behalf. Unfortunately, the 2002 Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act (BCRA), which traded modest reforms for a doubling of hard money contribution limits, has done nothing to change the power of money to influence election outcomes.

Nowhere is the influence of big money on elections more apparent than in the U.S. congressional primary elections. Building on our analyses of the 2002 congressional primary and general elections, we examined campaign finance data compiled by the Federal Election Commission (FEC) for the 2004 congressional primaries. Predictably, we found that money continued to play a key role in determining election outcomes and that the majority of campaign contributions came from a small number of large donors (many of whom reside out-of-state).

Key findings of our analysis of the 2004 congressional primaries include the following:

The majority of 2004 congressional primary races were uncontested. Almost two-thirds (65 percent) of the 2004 congressional primary races were uncontested—meaning that only one candidate decided to run for his or her party’s nomination for a given seat. More than half (58 percent) of the incumbent Senators who ran were unopposed in their 2004 primary races.

Money was a key determinant in election outcomes. Major party congressional candidates who raised the most money from individuals and political action committees (PACs) won 91 percent of their primary races in 2004. Winning candidates out-raised losing candidates by a 4-to-1 margin.

The vast majority of campaign contributions came from a small number of large donors. While only 0.08 percent of voting-age Americans made a contribution to a congressional candidate of $1,000 or more, these large donations accounted for 63 percent of all individual contributions received by 2004 primary candidates. Similarly, only 0.02 percent of voting-age Americans made a $2,000 contribution, the new maximum amount allowed under BCRA, to a congressional primary candidate. Yet more than a fifth (21 percent) of all individual contributions to congressional primary candidates came at the $2,000 level after BCRA went into effect.

Individual contributions greater than $200 are coming in even larger increments. In 2002, we looked at the percentage of itemized individual contributions—checks of $200 or more reported individually by the campaigns—coming from $1,000 donors, finding that 73 percent of candidates’ itemized contributions came in $1,000 increments. Following BCRA, 89 percent of candidates’ itemized contributions came in increments of $1,000 or more.

Out-of-state donors exerted significant influence on primary election contests. More than one quarter (26 percent) of individual contributions to 2004 congressional primary candidates came from out-of-state donors.

In order to break the stranglehold of money on politics and move toward a truly representative democracy, we must implement reform measures that will provide ordinary citizens with an equal opportunity for political participation, including:

• Lowering contribution limits;

• Limiting campaign spending;

• Providing incentives for small contributions;

• Providing free media for candidates;

• Offering candidates the choice of full public financing in exchange for forgoing private funds; and

• Requiring in-district fundraising.

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