Voters drowned out by spending

Although we won’t know fundraising results from other county, legislative and statewide candidates until the disclosure deadline tomorrow, Gov. Terry Branstad and Lt. Gov. Kim Reynolds let their cat out of the bag Thursday. The duo is reporting a whopping $4.5 million cash-on-hand and promising, now that the legislative session has closed, their campaign “will kick into high gear.”

Iowa’s 2013 U.S. Census Bureau estimate is a total population of 3.1 million. Roughly 1.9 million people were registered, active voters as of May 1, according to the Secretary of State.

This means the Branstad-Reynolds campaign has collected roughly $1.45 for every man, woman and child in the state, or $2.37 for each active, registered voter. Looking only at the Republicans? That’d be $7.49 per GOP voter.

To put it another way, the Branstad war chest is $600,000 less than he recommended for the fiscal year 2014 Iowa National Guard Education Assistance Program or equal to his recommended FY2014 and FY2015 expenditures for upgrades and major maintenance of statewide facilities for the Department of Public Defense.

And that’s only the money attached to a single candidate for governor — a job that pays $130,000 per year. We don’t know yet how much is in Democratic challenger Jack Hatch’s war chest. (Why do we refer to the culminated moneys supposedly given to support a candidate with violent metaphor?) We don’t yet know who has given donations to Iowa House candidates or county hopefuls.


But a very important point to remember is that, come Monday, we will know. While not made available in a digital spreadsheet that can be easily crunched for specific information (as it should be), the image of each disclosure filed with the state, listing campaign donors by name and address, is made public. Statewide Political Action Committees (PACs) and political parties also will disclose an itemized list of donors and expenditures.

Super PACs, formed to support or oppose specific candidates’ policies/goals but not coordinate with the candidate’s own committee, also disclose their donors, which can include individuals, corporations, unions and non-profits. (Super PACs alone spent more than $600 million during the 2012 presidential election — $469 million to attack a candidate.)

Other organizations — several already working to influence primary elections in the state — aren’t required to give the public detailed information on their donors. These organizations, legally labeled as 501(c)(4), are to primarily focus on social welfare and not on politics. As a result, many of these groups have ads that seek to educate Iowans on the specific policy stance of the organization and urge viewers to call a specific office holder to regurgitate what was said on the ad. Sure, it skirts the line of true education and advocacy, but current legal precedent has resulted in too much ambiguity to be effective. And just like children testing their boundaries, the minute one group is able to press the envelope a little further, all the others are going to do the same.


There have been three key federal court cases, one as recent as April 2, that have opened the money flood gates:

1) Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission — decided that corporations and unions could operate under the same First Amendment free speech rights as individuals.

2) Buckley v. Valeo — removed limits on campaign expenditures (including those made from a candidate’s personal funds), on independent expenditures by individuals and groups.

3) McCutcheon v. Federal Elections Commission — suspended aggregate limits on campaign contributions, also on the basis of free speech, allowing unlimited donations.

In McCutcheon, the most recent case, the 5-4 decision makes one specific note on the future hope of any campaign finance reform:

“This Court has identified only one legitimate governmental interest for restricting campaign finances: preventing corruption or the appearance of corruption.”

While the majority opinion limited such corruption to quid pro quo (or bribery, as it was described in the dissent), earlier opinions by the Court have taken a more conservative stance regarding the definition of corruption and the ailments surrounding the appearance of corruption.

“[The appearance of corruption] can lead the public to believe that its efforts to communicate with its representatives or to help sway public opinion have little purpose. And a cynical public can lose interest in political participation altogether. … Democracy, the Court has often said, cannot work unless ‘the people have faith in those who govern,’” wrote Justice Breyer as part of the McCutcheon dissent.

Here in Iowa, the home of the First-In-the-Nation Caucuses where some activists collect one-on-one time with presidential candidates in the same way young folks collect Pokemon cards, it is not unusual to hear politicos as well as non-politicos bemoan the distance of government and its inability to understand and help everyday, paycheck-earning, mortgage-paying people. Travel outside the Hawkeye State and the concerns only grow louder.


When people wonder if their vote will matter, they aren’t just pondering voting machines and contested ballots. Most are curious if their voice by proxy of the ballot is or will be heard over the clanging generated by those who have made a larger personal or monetary effort on behalf of a candidate, party or their affiliates.

Citizens watch as their legislatures haggle over $1 million appropriations, when five times that amount was spent to claim a $25,0000-a-year salary and seat at the statehouse. They see their lawmakers allow and encourage specific “friendly” groups to use space within the Capitol for the purpose of further exerting influence.

As I can attest first hand, it isn’t difficult to become cynical of the process or the people within it and feel the need to take a break from it all. But the problem with waving off these issues as being too big to tackle is that they don’t fade in your absence. They fester and grow. In just a few weeks, for instance, we are expected to hear more from the U.S. Supreme Court on whether or not a corporation can hold and impose religious beliefs on its employees.

In writing this, I don’t have a specific solution in mind, although several are being floated, including a movement to amend the U.S. Constitution, but I do think the situation is unsustainably crazy. In every other aspect of life, we are told not to judge others based on their personal wealth. But in the one aspect that truly impacts us on all levels, we devout headlines to the one who finishes with the most toys.

It’s enough to make anyone, or even a country, sick.

This column by Lynda Waddington originally published in The Gazette on May 18, 2014. Photo credit: Gary Cameron/Reuters