What do political donations buy?

7 mins read

I read an interesting review with a Republican primary contestant for the nomination to run for a U.S. Senate seat in Massachusetts. This interested me because it pits a successful entrepreneur and inventor against an academic drone; an Indian against a Pretendian; a young man with multiple engineering degrees against an aging woman with a law degree. I found the first fruits of Shiva Ayyadurai’s campaign to my taste. First, he has an advertisement with his image captioned “Real Indian” beside Elizabeth Warren’s image captioned “Fake Indian.” Second, he sent Senator Warren a DNA kit so she can establish her feathered Indian cred. She sent it back.

It should be fun watching this ridiculous woman ridiculed in the months to come, but there was something else in the interview which gave me an idea for this column. Ayyadurai was asked by the interviewer about his plans and expectations for countering the incumbent’s enormous fund-raising advantages. He theorized that most of the money donated to candidates ended up wasted in fees and salaries for “strategists,” consultants, media managers, spin doctors, pollsters and professional hacks. He was sure that his mastery of high tech Internet media will enable his campaign to overcome the Pocahontas cash advantage. Unlike the pasty-faced, blonde “Cherokee” he expected to spend money on the voters, not the hacks.

The validity of his election theory will be known by November 2018, but we can take a look at the question of campaign cash drains right away. We read no end of mournful palaver about how money, the rich, billionaires, dark money, corporate money, the Koch brothers, et al skew power away from The People and into the hands of wealthy elites. There’s no denying that candidates take a lot of interest in people who finance their campaigns. Money is a major factor, but its domination needs a close examination in light of the 2016 presidential campaign. Jeb Bush was first out of the gate in the GOP primary and common expert opinion was that his huge money advantage would drive off his rivals. In the end his arsenal of cash went off with a damp squiff and left him by the road side. Hillary Clinton gathered donations by the bucket, truck and boat. Trump lagged well behind financially and won. Jon Ossoff gathered between 23 and 30 million dollars in donations to bury his Republican opponent under a cash avalanche in a June Georgia congressional race and lost.

So we see that a huge money advantage is no guarantee of victory. So what is it useful for? First and foremost, it is vital for name recognition. If a candidate is new in politics and little known, his money will go to build name recognition. Even if well known, a big part of the budget goes for signs, bumper stickers, leaflets and such regalia that deliver little information other than a name and a slogan or two.

Word reaches us on July 18 that Republicans in Michigan are considering Robert James Ritchie as their candidate against Senator Debbie Stabenow next year. Why Bob Ritchie you ask? You will find the answer in this professional name: Kid Rock. Political scientists and hacks all know that name recognition is the most valuable asset a candidate can bring to a race. This is why famous actors, entertainers, sports stars, and war heroes will always attract the attention and stir the hopes of political leadership in both major parties. A businessman like Frank Perdue, the “tough guy” who knew how to serve up a tender chicken, gained wide public recognition by advertising his own products. So Republicans and Democrats both hoped to recruit him for a Senate run.

It’s hard to make the case that massacring chickens, or yowling into microphone equips a man for a statesman’s duties, but that’s an irrelevant objection. It encourages the Republicans to know that the Kid supported Romney and embraces most of their party’s issues, but that doesn’t add a lot of heft to his resume. What they really want from him is a victory over that liberal wench Stabenow. They can sort the rest out later.

Senators Stabenow and Warren have the two major advantages conferred by incumbency. They have easy access to contributions and ready-made name recognition. Even better, the incumbency itself eases access to contributions. Warren also has a national constituency among the Democratic Party’s extreme left wing. She can expect to pull millions of dollars from upper middle class liberals who revel in the status conferred by advanced, progressive opinions. Pocahontas has the option of refusing billionaire support if she chooses. She’ll still have plenty of money.

I don’t know what hope Shiva Ayyadurai has for victory. I’m feeling pretty doubtful. But there’s no question that if he wins he will force serious reassessment about how decisively money, all by itself, controls elections.

The Hindu god Shiva has many aspects and qualities. The one that interests me is Shiva the God of Destruction. This makes me hopeful.

John Frary of Farmington is a former candidate for U.S. Congress, a retired history professor, an Emeritus Board Member of Maine Taxpayers United, a Maine Citizen’s Coalition Board member, and publisher of FraryHomeCompanion.com. He can be reached at jfrary8070@aol.com

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