Last week, former Massey Energy CEO Don Blankenship announced his intention to run for US Senate in West Virginia. Blankenship is a crook in the truest sense of the word, fresh off a one-year prison stint for conspiracy to willfully ignore mine safety and health standards. He was convicted after the Upper Big Branch mine disaster in 2010, in which 29 Massey miners were killed a year after federal mine safety regulators looking into the company found dozens of violations.
It’s likely that Blankenship’s candidacy for Senate is a vanity project aimed at exacting revenge on Democratic Senator Joe Manchin, who the ex-con claims “rushed to demand that I be indicted” in a rambling post on his website called “Corruption in America is pandemic.” It’s also a longshot: A Public Policy Polling survey in 2016 found that 60 percent of West Virginians thought Blankenship’s sentence was too light, and he is facing both West Virginia Attorney General Patrick Morrissey and Congressman Evan Jenkins in the primary.
But Blankenship has one thing that most of his opponents do not: the ability to self-fund the constantly growing costs of a federal campaign. In the wake of Donald Trump’s election (which came after he gave $66 million to his own campaign) Blankenship is only the most recent high-profile, self-funding candidate to announce for 2018. And the fact that we have to take Blankenship seriously exposes a deep flaw in the US political system, which predates Trump: Only rich people—even unqualified and morally reprehensible rich people like Blankenship—can afford to run for higher office.
The reason campaigns keep getting more expensive, of course, is the lax rules around campaign finance. The Supreme Court’s 2010 decision in Citizens United paved the way for the now-giant role that Super PACs and outside spending play in the US political process. In the 2008 election, the last cycle before Citizens United, outside groups excluding party committees (i.e., ostensibly independent organizations which are not supposed to coordinate with candidates, wink wink) spent $338 million; in 2016, outside groups spent more than four times that. For most candidates, the only way to fight back against the current framework of the system is to kickstart a groundswell of support boosted by millions of small donors—or you could just put up the money yourself.
Unsurprisingly, many candidates opt for the second choice. According to numbers provided to me by the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics, there are 23 candidates for federal office in 2018 who have contributed at least half a million to their own campaigns. Coal company CEO Jim Justice, the only billionaire in West Virginia, became the governor of his state last year (he ran as a Democrat but switched to the Republican Party post-election). Democrat Phil Murphy, a former Goldman Sachs executive, spent over $20 million of his own money to win the Democratic primary for governor of New Jersey (he won the general election last month); and next year’s slate of Democratic gubernatorial candidates includes billionaire J.B. Pritzker in Illinois, whose family owns the Hyatt hotel chain, and retired life insurance company CEO Fred Hubbell in Iowa. And when it comes to 2020, there’s no shortage of speculation about tech billionaires Mark Cuban and Zuckerberg.
This isn’t a new trend. Billionaire Ross Perot’s first run for president, as an independent candidate in 1992, garnered nearly 20 percent of the vote. He spent over $70 million of his own money in his two runs for president. (Compare $70 million for two presidential runs to Murphy’s $20 million primary campaign and you’ll see how times have changed.) Michigan Governor Rick Snyder had an estimated net worth of $200 million in 2014 and was formerly the CEO of Gateway, and Florida Governor Rick Scott is a former healthcare executive and venture capitalist who’s worth $150 million.
Funding is often necessary to win office, but it’s not always sufficient. Failed candidate Meg Whitman put up over $140 million of her own money in the California gubernatorial race in 2010 and lost by double digits, while current administrator of the Small Business Administration Linda McMahon spent $97 million in two straight failed bids for US Senate in Connecticut.
Out of the 528 Congressional candidates who accounted for over 50 percent of their own contributions between 2010 and April 2016, just 11 had won, according a report by the Center for Responsive Politics. Last year, fared slightly better: Of the 23 federal candidates who contributed over $1 million to their own campaigns (including Trump), five won, a rate of 22 percent.
Center for Responsive Politics head Sheila Krumholz suggests that part of the reason these rich candidates have lost in the past is because of an inability to connect with voters on pocketbook issues. “Self-funded candidates are not representative of the people they aspire to represent,” she told me. “It’s difficult for them to relate to the economic hardships.”
“When you have people self-financing these campaigns, then they don’t have a funding accountability to anyone,” added Daniel Newman, president of MapLight, a group that tracks money in politics. “Some people find that appealing, that they’re not accountable to special interests, but at the same time they’re not accountable to citizens or constituents, because they didn’t come from an organized political base.”
Trump’s election has undoubtedly changed the game from what a viable political candidate can look like. “Voters used to want to see some government experience,” West Virginia University political science professor Patrick Hickey told me. “A wealthy businessman with no political experience got elected,” Newman said. “So it’s not a surprise that other wealthy businesspeople who haven’t held elected office would consider running.”
In a normal world, the viability of candidates like Trump and Blankenship would force us to take a long, hard look at whether letting the rich have unrestrained access to the political process is a good thing. That hasn’t happened at the federal level, leading to the uncontrolled spiraling of costs—the special election for Georgia’s Sixth Congressional District was the most expensive House race ever. But localities and states are putting regulatory schemes in place to prevent the total monetization of elections.
This year, Seattle gave $100 “democracy vouchers” for voters in the city to use for donations to City Council and city attorney candidates. (In the first year, citizens were barred from contributing to the mayoral race.) The program got a fair bit of use , as citizens spent $1.14 million in donations through the vouchers. Another idea is to cap spending, as New Jersey does in gubernatorial elections; while Murphy spent over $20 million in the Democratic primary, the limit in the general was $13.8 million.
New York City, meanwhile, has had a public matching funds model for small-dollar contributions since the late 1980s. Currently, the city will match donations up to $175 at a six-to-one rate; for example, if a New York City resident makes a $20 donation to a candidate participating in the program, the candidate will get $140. The program has been a success at diversifying the donor base of city politicians, at least more than other models. A Brennan Center study showed that in 2009, nearly 90 percent of the city’s census block groups included someone who made a small-dollar donation of $175 or less. A year later, however, small donors for the state legislative elections—New York State has no such matching funds program—came from just 30 percent of city census blocks.
“What we’ve seen over the years is that increasingly the candidates in our system are focused on going out and getting more small-dollar donations,” Eric Friedman, who serves as the New York City Campaign Finance Board’s assistant executive director, told me. “What you see when you compare ours to other systems, you see more competitive races and candidates and more contributors.”
Friedman believes that if there’s ever going to be a true leveling of the playing field for candidates—where the capacity to run isn’t dictated by the ability to self-fund or raise large sums from outside groups—it will be led by these state and local governments.
“There’s a number of states and cities moving forward on money and politics issues where the federal government has been stuck for a long time,” he said. “And once people see results from these efforts springing up really everywhere across the country, it’ll be that much harder for Congress to stand still.”
Paul Blest is a contributing writer for the Outline and Facing South. He lives in Raleigh, North Carolina.