Executive Summary

Five years after the Supreme Court’s 2010 Citizens United v. FEC decision, what are the roles of large donors and average voters in selecting and supporting candidates for Congress? This report examines the role of money in the 2014 congressional elections from both quantitative and qualitative perspectives, and demonstrates how matching small political contributions with limited public funds can change the campaign landscape for grassroots candidates.

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Key Findings

  • Candidates for the U.S. Senate must raise an average of $3,300 every day for six years to match the contributions collected by median 2014 winner; House candidates must raise $1,800 every day of their two-year cycle.
  • Relying exclusively on small donors, Senate candidates would have to secure at least 17 contributions every day and House candidates at least nine in order to keep up.
  • In 25 targeted 2014 congressional races, successful candidates and their closest competitors received more than 86 percent of the funds they raised from individuals in contributions totaling $200 or more.
  • Only two of 50 candidates in these competitive races raised less than 70 percent of their individual funds from large donors, while seven relied on big donors for more than 95 percent of their individual contributions.
  • This big money system filters out qualified, credible candidates who lack access to large donors. Four of these candidates are profiled in the pages below.
    • Kelly Westlund, lost WI-7 general election: “The current system makes sure that from start to finish our political process is dominated by the people with the most money…it’s no wonder that there is no voice for working class people in Congress.”
    • Rev. Michael Walrond, lost NY-13 Democratic primary: “You find out very quickly this is not about who has the best ideas; this is about who has the most money.”
    • David A. Smith, lost FL-7 Republican primary: “It’s very difficult for a first-time candidate, unless you’re personally prepared to write a big check to break into it.”
    • Amanda Renteria, lost CA-21 general election: “Given my network, where I come from, where I’m running, I expected that I wasn’t going to have huge donors. You have to ask folks for help that have been in your network and that understand where you’re running and why it’s important. That for me ended up being a small donor base.”
  • A federal program matching small contributions with limited public funds would have helped the profiled candidates compete more effectively against their big money-backed opponents by substantially narrowing the fundraising gap. One candidate would have raised significantly more money than her opponent if a matching fund program were available. The other three candidates would have narrowed the fundraising gap by an average of more than 40 percentage points. More importantly, they would have had significantly more resources to get their messages out and hit the minimum threshold for running a competitive campaign. And, they would have been able to do so raising two or three small contributions each day as opposed to the nine or more they currently need to keep up.