The American Legion Magazine | 10.1.01
By Alan W. Dowd

In Frank Capra’s 1939 classic Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, Jimmy Stewart plays Jefferson Smith, an idealistic political novice appointed to serve out the term of a corrupt senator. After uncovering a massive graft and kickback scheme, the young Mr. Smith is framed and nearly destroyed by the political machine behind it. Using a filibuster to plead his case and protect himself from certain expulsion, the embattled Smith collapses on the Senate floor after holding it for 23 hours.

But just when all hope seems lost, Smith’s mentor-turned-nemesis confesses to the corruption; Smith is revived; and the hero is carried from the Senate to thunderous applause as the credits roll.

Had Capra made Mr. Smith sixty years later, a sequel would already be in the works. Given his first brush with politics, no one would blame Jefferson Smith for taking a pass when asked to run for his own senate term in Mr. Smith II. But once Stewart stammered his way onto the campaign trail, what would it take to win?

Whiskey and Politics. Adlai Stevenson, who won the Democratic presidential nomination in1956, once observed, “The hardest thing about any political campaign is how to win without proving that you are unworthy of winning.”

George Washington and James Madison would probably agree.

In 1757, as he ran for a seat in the Virginia House of Burgesses, Washington spent a small fortune on rum and whiskey. It’s estimated that he bought more than a quart of liquor per voter in that first campaign. He won, and thanks in part to this special campaign expense, he served in the Virginia House for the next 17 years.

James Madison refused to follow Washington’s example in his bid for re-election to the same body. Perhaps predictably, he lost. [source: Robert Goidel, Donald Gross and Todd Shields, Money Matters, p.17]

This little-known piece of history serves to remind us that money – and what it can buy – has played a role in U.S. politics from the very beginning.

But that role didn’t end with bottles and kegs. As political scientists Robert Goidel, Donald Gross and Todd Shields explain in their book Money Matters, long before the Constitution was ratified, wealthy individuals and political parties alike were using “money to purchase newspapers and other printed materials to publish their partisan writings.” The resulting clash of ideas produced such influential works as The Federalist Papers and The Anti-Federalist Papers, laying the groundwork for a political system controlled not by the government, but by the candidates and their supporters. In many respects, it’s a system we have never abandoned. [source: Money Matters, p.17]   

It has been almost 250 years since Washington used his deep pockets to win a seat in the Virginia House, yet Americans are still grappling with money’s proper place in politics.

On average, candidates spend $6.4 million to win a seat in the Senate; a successful House race costs just over $653,000. Those numbers don’t mean much until we consider what it takes to amass that amount of money. A Senator needs to raise $20,454 a week to reach the $6.4-million mark. A Congressman’s weekly fundraising goal is $6,263.

According to Sen. John Edwards, D-N.C., this full-tilt push for campaign cash has created “a public perception that we are involved in what is wrong with the system.” [source: Sen. Edwards, Congressional Record, 3-29-01]

It takes time and effort to meet those goals. Some Members of Congress hire consultants to direct their fundraising efforts; others farm it out to staff. But given the substantial costs of a modern campaign, it’s impossible for a Senator or Representative to avoid altogether what Sen. Robert Byrd, D-W.Va., calls “the grubby, demeaning task of trying to raise money.”

As George Geib, a veteran political strategist and professor of history at Butler University in Indianapolis, explains, “The candidate himself has to make the pitch to large donors.” Phone calls often suffice, but because federal law prohibits fundraising on government property, to make those calls Members of Congress must leave their offices – and their official duties.

When in Washington, they can make calls from phone banks and offices at their party headquarters, located just down the street from the Capitol Dome. When Congress is in session, a steady stream of Senators, Representatives and top staffers flows in and out of the DNC headquarters on Capitol Street and RNC offices on First Street. No one keeps track of how many or how often, and even if they did it wouldn’t paint an accurate picture of the time elected officials spend dialing for dollars: Thanks to the cell phone, Members of Congress can talk to big contributors from anywhere. 

Soft Money. Aiming squarely at the perception that money drives policy and corrupts policymakers, McCain-Feingold bans so-called “soft money,” a key part of most successful campaigns.  According to Sen. Russ Feingold, D-Wis., “Soft-money contributions do not come from average Americans but from the wealthiest sectors of our society.” In his view, soft money “enhances the influence of the wealthy few over the political process.” [source: Russell Feingold, “Modest Reform?” Money and Politics, p.34]

While it’s difficult to define “soft money,” a good place to start is by first defining “hard money.” According to the Congressional Research Service, existing federal law regulates money in all federal elections by banning union and corporate money, limiting individual contributions and requiring campaigns to disclose receipts and expenditures. “Money raised and spent under these laws to directly influence federal elections is commonly known as hard money,” a recent CRS report explains. [source: Joseph Cantor, “Overall spending in 2000 Elections,” Campaign Finance Reform Briefing Book, http://www.congress.gov/, 3-20-01]

The campaign-finance reforms of 1976 and 1979 codified current hard-money limits. Among other things, these post-Watergate regulations limited individual contributions to $1,000 per election per candidate, which could translate into as much as $5,000, since primaries, conventions, general elections and special elections are each considered separate and distinct elections. (McCain-Feingold would bump that up to $2,000 per election and allow the new limit to rise with inflation.) The 1970s reforms also capped contributions to parties at $20,000.

But soft-money offers a loophole that enables parties to flout many of the fundraising regulations that were intended to make the political process more transparent and less susceptible to corruption. Soft money is raised and spent outside the bounds of federal financing laws, ostensibly because it is to be used for political activities at the state and local level. As the Hoover Institution’s campaign-finance primer explains, “In theory, [soft money] is for generic party-building activities such as getting out the vote.” [source: Hoover Institution, “Coming to Terms: A Money-in-Politics Glossary,” http://www.campaignfinancesite.org/, 4-47-01] In practice, however, it is used to influence federal elections.

Even after reaching the hard-money limits, an individual or political action committee can continue to contribute under the shadows of soft money. And the parties are growing increasingly dependent on it: Soft money, which accounted for just 18 percent of the Democrats’ and Republicans’ total fundraising in 1992, jumped to 29 percent in 1996 and 40 percent in 2000. [source: Cantor, “Hard and Soft Money Raised by Political Parties,” http://www.congress.gov/, 3-20-01]

Hard Facts. When money and politics mix, the results can be questionable, like Washington’s running tab in 1757; constructive, like the publication of The Federalist Papers in the 18th century; or corrosive, like the loss in public confidence today.  But one thing money cannot be is a guarantee of success at the ballot box. For evidence of this, we don’t need to sift through much of history.

In 1992, Republicans outspent Democrats by $114 million dollars. Yet they lost control of the White House. In 1996, the GOP outpaced the Democrats by $209 million. Not only would the GOP lose the presidency (again), the party lost seats in the House. [source: Joseph Cantor, “Hard and Soft Money Raised by Political Parties,” 3-20-01, Congressional Research Service]

The trend continued into 1998 and 2000, as Republicans raised a combined $1.1 billion to the Democrats’ $765 million. Yet the GOP lost seats in both the House and Senate, and effectively tied in the race for president. [source: Cantor] 

Individual races paint the same picture.

In West Virginia, Democrat Jim Humphreys spent $4.5 million more than his opponent. In Texas, Republican Phil Sudan spent three times as much as his opponent. In Florida, Democrat Elaine Bloom nearly doubled her opponent’s campaign expenditures. Yet each of them lost.

And since Mr. Smith would be running for the Senate in our sequel, consider these numbers from Senate campaigns: Rep. Rick Lazio, R-NY, devoured $33 million in his race against Hillary Clinton, who spent $7 million less and won. In Michigan, Republican Sen. Spence Abraham doubled up his opponent in spending–and lost. [source: commoncause.org]

And the list of big spenders who lose big grows with every election–from Huffington to Perot to Forbes.

Obviously, Mr. Smith will need more than money to return to the Senate. Geib  argues that the formula for getting elected is rather simple: “All it takes is one more vote than your opponent,” he explains with a wry tinge in his voice. “That sounds obvious, but too often candidates focus on secondary things.” 

In Geib’s view, money is one of those secondary things. He talks about drive, vision and a solid political organization long before he even mentions money to the campaign managers who flock to his course in campaign mechanics, a course he has taught in ten states for twenty years.

Above all, earning that decisive vote “requires long hours and hard work,” according to Geib. “The candidate has to understand that politics isn’t a 9 to 5 job.”        

Even so, Geib concedes that money plays a part in getting elected. “A candidate spends between one-third and two-thirds of his time during the campaign with donors,” he estimates. Geib likens drive, vision, organization and money to the four legs of a table. A candidate needs all four to keep his campaign from crashing to the ground. Money alone won’t do the job.    

Winning Combination. There is one characteristic, one advantage, that gives Mr. Smith better than an even chance of winning his mythical campaign and ending the sequel on a high note. It’s an advantage that outweighs money, vision, charisma and even luck. It’s an advantage that all but guarantees victory in congressional races. And it’s an advantage that every candidate wants, regardless of his views on McCain-Feingold. It’s incumbency.

According to the CRS, a staggering 97.8 percent of House incumbents who chose to run for reelection won in 1998. They matched that in 2000. On the Senate side, the numbers are almost as impressive: 89.7 percent of incumbents were reelected in 1998, 82 percent in 2000.

That’s not necessarily a bad thing. Just as some people are made to be doctors or teachers or engineers, perhaps some are born to be public servants. As Stevenson and Washington understood, running for office and serving as an elected official require a special set of skills.  But we need to be candid about the advantages of incumbency. If we’re not, any diagnosis we make about America’s political system might miss the mark altogether.

The official duties of incumbents often give them opportunities to score political points back home. For example, when a senator secures funding for a new bridge or base, voters take notice. Likewise, when a representative helps solve a problem for a constituent at the VA, there is often a political windfall: Constituents tell their friends, family, neighbors and local newspapers.

Sometimes an incumbent’s official duties even give him an opportunity to campaign: When Air Force One delivers the president and a few handpicked Members of Congress to the scene of a natural disaster or national crisis, challengers are nowhere to be seen. But incumbents are center stage, and the unblinking eye of the media ensures that voters see the performance.

Indeed, incumbents can make news virtually at will. Newspapers are quick to print an op-ed column by the local congressman or senator. A phone call or a press release can produce a gaggle of cameramen and reporters out of thin air.

But among the most overwhelming advantages of incumbency are the trappings of the office itself. Members of Congress are allowed to send postage-free mail to constituents in their districts. They are given travel allowances to fly to and from Washington. They are granted office space, allowances for a “mobile office,” letterhead, and thousands of calendars and pocket Constitutions, which can gently remind voters that their representatives in Washington care.   

There are legal restrictions on how they can use their offices, what can be sent by “franked” mail, where their rolling billboards known as mobile offices can travel, what can be put on congressional letterhead, and so on. Indeed, campaign activities are strictly prohibited inside congressional offices. But it’s often difficult to draw a bright line between the official duties and campaign activities of someone whose job it is to serve the very people who determine his political fate. And it’s nearly impossible for challengers to offset the built-in advantages enjoyed by a veteran officeholder.

To be fair, the advantages of incumbency don’t end with official perks. Sitting Members of Congress raise three times as much money as their challengers. Their campaign war chests often deter would-be opponents from even mounting a challenge. Indeed, Washington watchdog Common Cause found that 59 House incumbents ran unopposed in 2000. Another 149 ran “financially unopposed,” which means their opponents raised a paltry $25,000 or less. [source: commoncause.org]

In other words, fully 208 of the 435 House races were decided before Election Day. And of the 29 Senate incumbents who ran for reelection last fall, only three were out-raised by their challengers. All of them lost, by the way.

Let that be lesson to young Senator Smith as he hits the campaign trail: Just as money alone cannot guarantee success on Election Day, neither can incumbency. But put the two together, and you’ve got an almost-unbeatable combination.