Report: Reclaiming Our Democracy

Look Who's Not Coming to Washington 2002

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 can run 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.

Money was as important to candidates in the most recent congressional elections it has ever been. U.S. PIRG and Center for Responsive Politics analysis of Federal Election Commission (FEC) campaign finance data for the 2002 election cycle reveals the following:

• Campaign fundraising continues to increase at a rate greater than inflation.

• 93.4 percent of general election candidates for Congress who spent the most money won their races.

• 83 percent of itemized individual contributions to candidates, parties and PACs (hard and soft money) were made by donors who contributed at least $1,000 in aggregate.

• 0.11 percent of the voting age population of the United States made a contribution of $1,000 or more.

• Many candidates for Congress in 2002 were unable to compete with campaigns backed by wealthy interests.

A survey of federal candidates who dropped out of races, lost primaries, or lost general elections reaffirms this data. 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 positions that appeal to large contributors.

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

"We’ve established a system that is fueled by who can afford to run and fueled by money. If you don’t have money or can’t raise large sums of money, you can’t run for federal office and increasingly you can’t run for any office.” Robin Britt, former North Carolina Congressman (page 31)

"The lesson I’ve learned out of this is that we’ve ended up with a process that is not healthy for democracy…The only people who can consider running in our current system are people who are independently wealthy or partners in a business that will underwrite them or the front for some special interest group. You shrink your pool of available candidates to a very small group of people.” Michael Armour, former College President (page 36)

"Democracy is in crisis in the United States…These aren’t elections, they’re resource contests where you scare people off so you don’t have to run a campaign.” Bart Haggin, Chair of Washington Conservation Voters (page 40)

"Most of our congressional seats are up for sale to the highest bidder…You’ve got to say and do the right thing to get money.” Tommy Robinson, former Arkansas Congressman (page 13)

"When candidates get big money from one percent of donors, they are obligated to consider the donors’ point of view more than the voters point of view…Voters are turned off by big money candidates and people who will fight for the common person don’t have the money to get their message out.” Peter Mathews, College Professor (page 13)

"It is impossible to do grassroots campaigns that have any chance of being effective against well-funded campaigns.” Jim Patterson, former Mayor of Fresno (page 14)

"I was walking down the street in my hometown of Middletown and another African-American came up to me and said ‘I heard you speak, I want to help you, dives into her purse and pulled out $2 in change. She believed in me enough to want to give me that money, but she didn’t understand that even if everyone in town gave me $2 in change, that’s not going to get you there.” Gary Collins, Attorney (page 15)

"I thought if you had the energy to get out and be among the people and do grassroots campaigning that you could compensate for the lack of money. But you still have to hit that floor amount of money…We’re rapidly approaching the point where only wealthy people will be in office.” Ben Allen, Georgia State Legislator (page 17)

"Successful candidates need to put 90% of their effort on fundraising, not meeting with constituents, trying to learn the issues. That ill-serves the country.” Chuck Pardue, Georgia Attorney (page 18)

"The number one thing I’ve noticed over the last 15-20 years in politics is that in the earlier years it was about how your ideas fare; now the only thing you read about in the papers is who raised the most money, and everybody thinks that the candidate who raises the most money wins.” Carlos Nolla, Kansas Attorney (page 23)

"If you look at my schedule, my campaign was manacled to a desk, calling people for money…it took away from get-out-the-vote and field and talking about issues—what campaigns should be about. You really had to fight for time to read and be an informed candidate because the consultants say ‘spend all day calling for money—don’t do anything else ever.’” Sean Faircloth, Maine State Legislator (page 25)

Support Us

Your donation supports U.S. PIRG’s work to stand up for consumers on the issues that matter, especially when powerful interests are blocking progress.

Consumer Alerts

Join our network and stay up to date on our campaigns, get important consumer updates and take action on critical issues.
Optional Member Code

U.S. PIRG is part of The Public Interest Network, which operates and supports organizations committed to a shared vision of a better world and a strategic approach to social change.