A version of this post first appeared at Brennan Center for Justice.
The gathering at a Capitol Hill Starbucks at 8:00 on the morning of June 10th remains the most memorable scene from Campaign 2014. As reported by the Washington Post, House Majority Leader Eric Cantor was holding his regular monthly fund-raising meeting with a group of lobbyists. When asked about his own congressional primary that day, Cantor exuded confidence saying that he had spent heavily (nearly $6 million) to roll up a huge margin against his Tea Party challenger so he would “show no sign of weakness.”
Cantor, of course, lost the Republican primary to Dave Brat by a double-digit margin. Stripped of his dreams of becoming House speaker, Cantor will have to make do on Wall Street. He announced last week that he would be moving to a small investment banking house for a guaranteed $1.6 million per year plus a $1 million signing bonus.
Cantor’s June downfall conveys a lesson too little understood by many political leaders in both parties. An obsession with campaign cash — at the expense of almost anything else — can boomerang. Cantor with his money madness was, in effect, Midas Touched.
New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo offers another example of the malady. With $35 million in campaign funds and a hapless Republican opponent, Cuomo appeared to be headed towards a reelection victory that was more coronation than campaign. All this was designed to set him up as a major Democratic presidential contender in the first election in which Hillary Clinton is not a candidate.
That was the theory, at least.
But nothing prepared Cuomo for an aggressive primary challenge from under-funded Fordham University law professor Zephyr Teachout, an ardent campaign reformer. Cuomo’s vulnerability is his theory of governing built around backroom deals to tame a balky state legislature and to guarantee that the campaign cash keeps flowing. Not only did Cuomo abandon promises about redistricting and campaign finance reform, but he also scuttled an independent anti-corruption commission when it reportedly got too close to his aides and activities.
Cuomo — with his overwhelming cash advantage and his party support — prevailed in Tuesday’s primary. But it will likely be a pyrrhic victory for Cuomo, especially in terms of his larger political ambitions. National Democrats, for example, may long remember that The New York Times refused to make an endorsement in the primary in an editorial with the telling subhead: “Governor Cuomo’s Failure on Ethics Reform Hinders an Endorsement.
Now back to the larger moral: Too many discussions of campaign fund-raising assume that the candidate is a passive figure acted upon by special interests. But, lest we forget, politicians have free will. Nobody forced Cantor to neglect his own congressional district in the frenzied pursuit of cash from lobbyists. The same is true of Cuomo who seemingly decided that campaign money could buy him love — no matter what his record on government ethics.
Barack Obama may be prone to the same money myopia. In mid-July, he attended three Democratic Party fund-raisers in Texas at the height of the border crisis, prompting a high-decibel debate on whether he should mount his own inspection tour. A few days later, after a Malaysian passenger jet was shot down over Ukraine, Obama resolutely kept his commitment to attend two fund-raising events in New York.
An argument can be made that the bad publicity surrounding these fund-raisers may have cost 2014 Democratic candidates more votes than the campaign cash will have gained. In congressional election years, presidential approval ratings are a major factor in shaping voting and turnout decisions. And these days, Obama’s dismal approval ratings (averaging 35 percent on foreign policy and 42 percent overall) are dragging Democrats down.
The last major national fund-raising scandal stemmed from Bill Clinton’s belief that campaign cash would be his line of defense in his 1996 reelection race. As a result, he agreed to an ethically-iffy agenda of White House coffees and Lincoln Bedroom sleepovers to raise unregulated “soft money” for the Democratic Party. In the final weeks of the campaign — as news stories began to trickle out about dubious Asian soft-money contributions — Clinton’s poll numbers tumbled. Where the Gallup Poll in mid-October gave Clinton a landslide 23-point lead over Republican Bob Dole, the president’s final margin of victory was a more modest 9-percentage points.
This is not an argument for political candidates to limit themselves to only small coins that can fit in a beggar’s bowl. Nor is it to scorn all presidential fund-raising. But surrounded by frenzied campaign consultants — always screaming for more money to buy more television time — it is easy for politicians to lose the ability to just say no.
That is why Cantor and now Cuomo offer the reminder that a huge campaign war chest can offer as porous a bulwark as the Maginot Line. So this is the season for money-hungry politicians to ponder Wordsworth’s line: “Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers.”