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Opinion

NANCY MacLEAN & FRANK CLEMENTE: Billionaires' dark money silences voters' voices

Posted October 30, 2022 7:06 a.m. EDT
Updated October 30, 2022 7:10 a.m. EDT

Campaign money

EDITOR'S NOTE: Nancy MacLean is a historian at Duke University. Frank Clemente is executive director of Americans for Tax Fairness.

Billionaires have increasingly mobilized to gain even more influence in U.S. elections over the past decade, with this year’s midterms seeing an acceleration of that troubling trend. The funding of GOP Congressman Ted Budd’s campaign to be the next U.S. Senator from North Carolina is a leading example. We need to strengthen campaign finance laws, reign in unchecked spending as well as expand disclosure and transparency to curb this co-opting of democracy by the ultra-rich.

Through the first year-and-a-half of the current election cycle, 27 billionaires provided nearly half the money — $89.4 million of a total of $188.3 million — raised by the Senate Leadership Fund and the Congressional Leadership Fund – the two main super PACs trying to elect Republicans to Congress. Super PACs can raise unlimited amounts from every donor.

Another super PAC backing Republican congressional candidates sponsored by the economic lobby Club for Growth pocketed nearly $35 million — almost two-thirds of its total donations — from just three billionaires. It used well over one-third of that haul, or $14 million, to help Budd win his GOP Senate primary.

Club for Growth Action invested two and a half times more in Budd’s campaign than his own campaign did. For the ultra-wealthy, spending to elect candidates who will protect their tax status and gut regulations is a good investment: millions in donations can mean billions in tax savings and less public oversight of their actions.

A MarketWatch analysis of campaign finance records through Oct. 23 shows massive outside spending on behalf of Republicans running in competitive Senate races has more than made up for Budd’s lack campaign fund raising. Budd’s raised $18.2 million less than his Democratic opponent former N.C. Supreme Court Chief Justice Cherie Beasley as of the end of September. But he has gained from $55.9 million in outside spending either backing him or attacking Beasley. There has been about $17.1 million in outside spending on behalf of Beasley or opposing Budd. Overall, Budd’s has a $20.5 million financial lead.

Curbing the undue, destructive influence of billionaires on elections requires restoring effective limits on campaign spending, such as by outlawing super PACs and ending anonymity for big donors to so-called “dark money” campaign groups.

Many billionaires have gone several years paying zero federal income tax, and the 400 wealthiest on average pay a lower tax rate than teachers and truck drivers when all their income is properly accounted for.

More equitable taxation of billionaires could leave them with less money to try to buy elections and narrow the nation’s destabilizing wealth and income gaps.

Billionaires are used to being able to buy what they want, whatever the cost. It’s up to us to make sure our democracy is not for sale.

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