Outside money is undermining local political control

In an effort to portray herself as the down-home candidate in her contest against Democrat Sarah Gideon, Republican Senator Susan Collins sent out a text message on Oct. 21 saying Gideon has more donors from Portland, OR than Portland, ME. As of mid-October 2020, Gideon’s out-of-state contributions, $41.8 million, represented 92.3% of her total contributions.

Collins neglected to mention that 91.80 % ($11.9 million) of the donations she’s received during 2019-20 have come from outside Maine, according to OpenSecrets.org, the website of the Center for Responsive Politics. That made her one of the top 10 senate recipients of contributions outside of their state during that period.

Think about that. The winner of a critical Maine Senate race that could determine which party controls the Senate may well be determined by people who don’t even live in Maine.

Political races across the country are increasingly being funded by people from other places.

In today’s contentious political campaigns, out-of-state contributions overwhelmingly dominate the higher end of fundraising for Democrats and Republicans. It’s part of the nationalization of all politics in the United States.

In Oregon, the strongest evidence of out-of-state influence on a campaign is in the race between incumbent Democrat Congressman Peter DeFazio and Republican Alek Skarlatos. Out-of-state residents have contributed 41.9% of the money raised by DeFazio; for Skarlatos, the out-of-state share is 68.6%, according to OpenSecrets.org.

DeFazio (L) vs. Skarlatos

Out-of-state money is also playing an increasingly important role in ballot measure battles.

In Oregon, the key backer of Measure 110 on the 2020 ballot is Drug Policy Action, a New York City-based 501(c)(4) nonprofit advocacy group that supports marijuana legalization and more lenient punishments for drug possession, use, and sale.

The group is the advocacy and political arm of the Drug Policy Alliance, a 501(c)(3) educational nonprofit that was also behind Oregon’s 2014 measure legalizing recreational cannabis.

The Drug Policy Alliance has received major funding from billionaire investor George Soros, has long been involved in pushing for an end the legal war on drugs.

The next largest contributor is the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative of Palo Alto, CA, which has contributed $500,000. The Initiative is a charity established by Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg and his wife Priscilla Chan.

Out-of-state political contributions come from companies with local interests, networks of politically aligned people scattered across the country, and liberal and conservative national groups mobilizing to influence state-level elections.

Oregon tried to limit out-of-district political contributions in 1994 through Ballot Measure 6, which amended the state constitution to allow candidates to ”use or direct only contributions which originate from individuals who at the time of their donation were residents of the electoral district of the public office sought by the candidate.” (Oregon Constitution Art. II, § 22). The measure imposed a 10 percent cap on the total amount of money a candidate could accept from contributors residing outside the district.

When the measure went to the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, the state  asserted two interests, preventing the appearance of corruption and ensuring a republican form of government, as justifications for the out-of-district ban. The state could restrict out-of-district residents’ right to vote in the district, the court held, but could not restrict such residents’ right to express themselves about the election, including by contributing money.

In August 1998, the court struck down the Oregon ballot initiative in a 2-1 decision (VanNatta v. Keisling, 151 F.3d 1215 9th Cir.1998).

“Who should really have a say in how each state is run?”, asks Dan Weiner, senior counsel at New York University’s Brennan Center for Justice.  “It used to be that, at least at the state level, the interests of constituents vastly outweighed any interests coming from elsewhere around the country. But that’s no longer true to some extent because of the proliferation of the campaign finance free-for-all.”

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