A Small-Donation Campaign Is Noble, But Is it Realistic?

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By Bryan Kim

In the traditional folklore of political campaigning, voluntarily refusing campaign donations is both impractical and self-defeating. There’s some fact-based truth to this, and in fact, the threshold has been found. In the fourteen years from 1992 to 2006, less than 1% of all Congressional challengers won if their campaign was unable to raise and spend at least $700,000. While most Americans acknowledge the need for campaign finance reform, running a low-budget campaign funded only by small donations is remarkably like bringing a knife to a shootout.

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Christina Bobb, a candidate for Congress in the 53rd District. Image courtesy her campaign site

San Diego’s own Scott Peters is an ardent opponent of the Citizens United decision. He’s called for its repeal on the campaign trail, decried the excessive influence of “labor unions, oil companies, [and] environmental groups,” and spoken passionately against the idea of unrestricted campaign donations. However, the traditional approach has certainly worked well for Peters, who defeated Brian Bilbray in 2012 by spending over $4.2 million – more than double the average spent by candidates that year. When asked about his Political Action Committee donations, Peters pointed to a large donation received from the League of Conservation Voters, saying, “I think everyone knows where they stand and where they’re coming from.” When asked about John Campbell’s $200 campaign donation limit in the race for California’s 53rd District, his reply was succinct: “noble, but unrealistic.” Peters will likely spend a few million more between now and November.

I next sat down with Carl DeMaio. He was ready and eager to point to times in his past when he worked for his conscience against his self-interest, like taking a 22 percent pay cut his first day on the city council. He also cited his refusal to accept donations from city employees during his council race as proof the sincerity of his reform agenda, as well as the “caution [he] wanted to take not to ever solicit a city employee [he’d] have management authority over.” He beamed about the software he used during his council and mayoral runs that allowed him greater transparency in donor base. When asked if he was doing that for his Congressional campaign, he told me only that the campaign had changed software. Though he’s taken much less PAC money than Peters, almost three-quarters of his funding comes from large contributions of over $200: $1.2 million of his over $1.6 million raised.

I was especially excited to speak with Christina Bobb, an independent candidate for the 53rd District running on a transparency pledge. I hadn’t been sure at first if the former Marine judge advocate was actually running: she has only a minimal campaign website. She’s raised no money and has done no self-promotion, relying instead on the people’s civic interest and the power of “truth over money” to carry her to victory. When asked how she planned to win, she admitted openly that she doesn’t know. “I understand that it might not work, but it might,” she said. “When you’re constantly seeking the limelight… the focus becomes on you, and how the voters help you get into office, which is the complete opposite of how it’s supposed to be.” In person, Bobb’s commitment to her ideals and her passion for honest governance are unquestionable. But with no venue for propagation and no strategic alternative to traditional campaigning, it is all too likely she will be drowned out in the media cacophony of the 2014 election cycle.

It’s a discouraging time to be an independent: Even reformers like DeMaio and Peters are exceedingly comfortable with running the way people have always run, and ideologically appealing alternatives like Bobb have little realistic chance or plan for how to win. To be successful, an independently funded campaign must be as organized, focused, and self-propagating as a “Big Money” campaign. The only way to do that is with genuine grassroots supporters who will work as hard for their candidates as Super PAC donors spend for theirs. Beyond that, if they hope to gain any ground against multi-million dollar campaign machines, a successful independent movement will require a concrete, organized, and realistic strategy every bit as powerful as its principles of ethical and transparent campaigning.

Bryan Kim is CEO of the Moderate Majority, an independent grassroots coalition based in San Diego that is working to put an end to political partisanship.

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