Voters of all political affiliations in Washington State know that big money has an outsized influence in state elections and political processes. That’s why the Washington Government Accountability Act, I-1464 on next month’s ballot, would restore balance to Evergreen State elections by lifting up the voices of everyday voters and limiting special interest access to elected officials.
We wondered, though: just how big of an influence do special interests play in Washington elections? Sightline sifted, sorted, and analyzed campaign fundraising data from every single Washington State legislative race in 2012 and 2014 to find out. Not surprisingly, we found that PACs, corporations, unions, and other special interest organizations provide the bulk of winning candidates’ war chests, and we detail some interesting breakdowns of those funds below.
PACs, corporations, other organizations outspend individuals more than two-to-one
Individual giving comes from a tiny fraction of voting-age adults
Very few people give money to Washington State legislative candidates. By “people,” of course, we mean what most would mean by “people”: living, breathing, individual human beings—not corporations, PACs, unions, or parties.
In both the house and senate, individuals provide only about one-quarter of campaign funds to the average successful candidate. On average, just 173 people—about 0.16 percent of the average number of voting-age adults in a state house district—contribute to a successful house candidate’s campaign. Together, they chip in less than $29,000, on average.
Over in the state senate, the story isn’t much different. An average of 352 people—just 0.3 percent of the average number of voting age adults per state senate district—pony up for the typical successful senate campaign. Collectively, they give just over $70,000 to winning candidates, on average.
PACs and corporations account for a majority of campaign dollars
In contrast, Political Action Committees (PACs), corporations, and other organizations supply fully 62 percent of the average winning house campaign’s funds and 58 percent of the average winning senate campaign’s. That’s about $3 of every $5 in a campaign war chest.
These organizations outspend individual contributors more than two-to-one: $72,000 to $28,000 on average to winning house candidates and $151,000 to $70,000 for the average winning senator. Though this category includes unions, PACs and corporations together account for close to 90 percent of this category of funds.
Political parties shore up especially tight races
Political parties also help fund campaigns. For average successful house and senate campaigns, parties contribute around 12 percent of total funding. When races are tight, parties contribute more.
Incumbents raise the bulk of their money from special interests, while challengers rely on people and parties
Although we usually think of campaign contributions as buying the election outcomes, often they are buying influence with the person already in office. By funding incumbents, special interests can secure access to a sitting legislator while increasing the chance that person will hold office longer. Challengers are a riskier bet for influence-peddlers, because they are not yet in a position of power and have a harder path to winning office.
Special interests, including corporations and PACs, contribute the bulk of campaign dollars for the typical winning house incumbent, averaging nearly $74,000, or 70 percent of total funds. In contrast, they play a much smaller role in the average winning house challenger campaign, contributing an average of just $42,000, or 24 percent of total funds.
To unseat an incumbent without much funding from special interests, challengers must rely more heavily on people, political parties, and themselves. Successful house challengers raise nearly $48,000 from individuals, on average—double the $24,000 that typical winning incumbents raises from individuals.
Political parties give challengers a big boost, contributing more than 40 percent of winning challengers’ total budgets, or an average of $72,000, compared to just $7,500 on average that parties give to successful house incumbents candidate.
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Finally, challengers have to reach more deeply into their own pockets, with successful challengers coughing up more than $12,000 apiece on average, more than 30 times the $369 the average successful house candidate puts up.
State senate challengers so rarely unseat senate incumbents that we lack enough data to give an accurate picture of successful senate challengers’ campaigns. Still, what data we do have show the same pattern as house campaigns: incumbents lean on PACs, corporations, and unions to fund their campaigns, while challengers turn to political parties, individuals, and their own personal pockets.
Imagining a different money picture
In our article describing how candidates can use I-1464’s Democracy Credits to run for office, we detailed a possible campaign scenario for a house challenger. A challenger could raise $135,000—77 percent of her funds—from individuals in the form of Democracy Credit contributions and personal contributions.
A Democracy Credit candidate would not have to take any money from PACs, corporations, and unions, and she might raise just 23 percent of her money from political parties. That makes for a markedly different balance in campaign funding that would then favor everyday people over big money and special interests:
The current rules of the game in Washington State legislative elections privilege special interests over everyday people. PACs and corporations play a particularly outsized role in keeping incumbents in office. Meanwhile, challengers must lean heavily on political parties to raise enough money to successfully oust an incumbent.
I-1464 could rewrite key rules to put everyday Washington voters back in power in their state elections. If candidates could run successful campaigns by meeting voters at community meetings and house parties and collecting Democracy Credits, instead of having to dial for dollars and currying favor with special interests, the balance of power in Washington State would shift. Democracy Credits would change the money picture and ensure everyday people have a stronger voice in Washington elections.
Want to find out which areas of the state give the most money overall to state legislative campaigns? Check out Following the Money in Washington State Elections, Part 2 here.