By: Daniel Marans
Over 100 Democratic House candidates penned a letter Thursday calling for Democrats to make campaign finance and electoral reform their highest priority in the next Congress.
The letter, signed by 107 Democratic contenders, is the latest sign that the party sees cleaning up corporate influence in Washington and other forms of corruption as a key part of its plan to take control of the House of Representatives.
Three-quarters of the candidates who signed the letter have taken End Citizen United PAC’s pledge to refuse corporate PAC money. (End Citizens United helped organize Thursday’s letter.)
“Restoring faith in our elections and in the integrity of our elected officials should be a top priority that all members of Congress can agree upon,” the letter reads. “Without these reforms we will be unable to truly regain the public trust or tackle the challenges of our day, like the costs of health care and prescription drugs, the opioid epidemic, or building an economy that is strong for working families.”
The letter was spearheaded, under the auspices of the End Citizen United PAC, by House candidates Katie Porter (Calif.), Jason Crow (Colo.), Lauren Baer (Fla.), Sharice Davids (Kan.), Elissa Slotkin (Mich.), Dean Phillips (Minn.), Andy Kim (N.J.), Tom Malinowski (N.J.), Max Rose (N.Y.), Antonio Delgado (N.Y.), Colin Allred (Texas) and Abigail Spanberger (Va.).
In the letter, the Democratic House candidates laid out broad guidelines for campaign finance and electoral reforms rather than spelling out specific proposals they would like to see voted on.
The broad set of reforms the letter endorses include: “limiting the influence of big donors on campaigns”; improving disclosure for dark political money; preventing foreign money from flowing into domestic campaigns; “ending” partisan gerrymandering; and curbing voter identification laws.
“If the American people do elect a Democratic majority this November, we must heed their call to finally and categorically change the way Washington works,” the signatories added.
In a conference call with reporters Thursday, Spanberger, who has pledged not to accept corporate PAC money, said diminishing the power of money in politics is about restoring trust, regardless of policy outcomes.
Spanberger, a former CIA officer challenging Rep. Dave Brat (R) in Virginia’s 7th Congressional District, initially felt that her personal integrity should be enough to win voters’ trust. But she recognized voters perceive that money sways votes, even if it is not the decisive factor in a particular instance.
“For me, the fact that it’s their perception makes it their reality,” she said.
In total, 127 House and Senate candidates this November have promised not to accept donations from corporate PACs, according to End Citizens United.
The vast majority of the candidates would be newcomers in Congress, but the figure also includes 12 incumbents running for election. Reps. Francis Rooney (Fla.) and Phil Roe (Tenn.) are the only two Republicans who have signed on.
“We are very quickly becoming a party that will say no ― to a tee ― to corporate PAC money. We will one day become a party that says no to federal lobbyist money as well, ” New York Democrat Max Rose said on Thursday’s call.
“What’s interesting about that is that we don’t need to wait for the president to sign something in order to achieve that,” added Rose, the Democratic nominee in New York’s 11th Congressional District, which includes Staten Island and parts of south Brooklyn. “We can just steadfastly and universally say that we don’t want anything to do with this type of transactional politics.”
Rose, who vowed to continue the ban in the event that he gets elected, has used his pledge to contrast himself with his Republican opponent, Rep. Dan Donovan. Rose has attacked Donovan for receiving $10,000 in campaign cash from top executives at Purdue Pharma, the Oxycontin maker whose aggressive sales practices have been blamed for worsening the opioid crisis, which has ravaged Staten Island.
End Citizens United is eager to point out that the corporate PAC money has not inhibited Democrats from raising copious amounts of campaign cash. At least nine Democrats who have taken the no corporate PAC money pledge and signed onto the letter raised more than $1 million in the third quarter of this year.
There are already signs that beating back the influence of corporations and wealthy donors will be a major theme in the 2020 presidential election. Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), one of the incumbent senators who has taken the pledge, rolled out an ambitious package of campaign finance and legislative reforms in August that parallels the guidelines in Thursday’s candidate letter.
Some skeptics of the no corporate PAC money pledge promoted by End Citizens United argue that the voluntary pledges risk shielding candidates from scrutiny without eliminating corporate influence. For example, many of the candidates receive money from leadership PACs that have themselves received corporate PAC money.
But on Thursday’s call, End Citizens United President Tiffany Muller called the pledge “a meaningful step” that at least begins the process of diminishing the power of big money in politics.
Muller also mocked the sometimes contradictory types of criticism the pledge receives. Some of the same critics complain that it risks hamstringing Democratic fundraising efforts, also deride the change as a mere “gimmick.”
“Guess what? It can’t be both,” she said. “It can’t be meaningless and be the downfall of all the candidates.”