Ask Maine State Senator Ed Youngblood what’s changed most since he first ran for office in 2000 and the answer is easy: the money. Back then, legislative races in the state attracted less than a quarter of a million dollars in outside spending. By 2012, political groups were pouring more than $3.5 million into those contests. Much of that swell had to do with the decision that the Supreme Court handed down five years ago today in Citizens United v. FEC, the case that opened the door for unlimited corporate political spending.
Youngblood has always run using Maine’s Clean Election program, which provides public funds for candidates who raise their money from small donors. It got a lot harder to do so after Citizens United, and things got even worse when another court case rolled back the part of Maine’s program that provided matching funds to help candidates deal with all that outside money. “‘We the people’ are rapidly losing control of the whole legislative process because of big money,” Youngblood, a Republican, lamented in an interview last week. “It just keeps growing and growing.”
Maine seems to illustrate a dire state of affairs, with out-of-date rules governing an electoral landscape that has been profoundly altered by unfettered big money. At the federal level campaign finance reform looks increasingly partisan, and with Republicans in control of Congress there’s little hope for movement on any of the several bills Democrats have put forward.
But the real action is at the state and local level, and Maine is actually one of the places where reformers are most hoping for progress. There, Youngblood is one champion in a campaign to strengthen the same public financing program that got him elected. Lawmakers in a number of other states and municipalities are considering proposals ranging from similar public financing programs to stricter disclosure requirements and incentives for small donors. “Efforts to simply restrict big expenditures are going to run afoul of the Supreme Court until we win a constitutional amendment, “ explained Nick Nyhart, president and CEO of the reform group Public Campaign. “In the near term, the most important things we can win right now, the things that will make most change immediately, are small donor-enhancing systems.”
One significant contrast between what’s happening in the states versus what’s not happening in Congress is the willingness of Republicans to work on the issue. Outside the beltway it’s still possible to find people like Youngblood—conservatives who aren’t as sanguine about the undoing of the spending rules as their colleagues in Washington.
Youngblood is particularly outspoken about the corrosive effects of big money in politics and, on the flip side, the benefits of a public financing system. “There is no question that in Maine we have seen a substantial increase in people who are not considered to be well connected and therefore would have found it difficult to raise the funds who choose to run for the legislature because of this program,” he said. “There are more women in the legislature today, more blue-collar workers in the legislature today, and I believe that’s all a result of the Clean Election program.”
But he’s not entirely alone within his party. More than a hundred Republican state legislators in fourteen states have voted in favor of a constitutional amendment to overturn Citizens United. Last November in Tallahassee, Florida, voters approved a measure backed by both conservative and liberal groups to limit large campaign contributions and reward small ones. In New Mexico, one of the least transparent states when it comes to political spending, a bill to require outside groups to disclose their expenditures is expected to be reintroduced this year by Republican Representative James Smith. (The bill has passed the state Senate multiple times with bipartisan support.) In Oregon, one of the few states with no limits on campaign contributions, the reform group Common Cause is working with lawmakers from both parties to cap them.
“At the grassroots level there are Republicans whose feelings on this and thoughts are not being represented in the political establishment,” said Nyhart. “There’s a gulf there, and I think a lot of it is due to the Republican leadership.”
The Senate, for example, is now led by Mitch McConnell, who has become a strident opponent of reform. (Though it was not always thus.) “That iron grip, it’s hard to buck that,” said Karen Hobert Flynn, who is senior vice president for programming and strategy at Common Cause. “At the municipal level and at the state level, legislators are closer to their constituents. And polls show very strong support for all of these kind of reforms— small donor public financing, a constitutional amendment to overturn Citizens United, and disclosure reform.”
Lawrence Norden, who directs money in politics work at the Brennan Center, cautioned not to “paint too rosy picture at the state level” regarding bipartisan cooperation. But Norden does still see potential there, particularly in ballot initiatives. “Voters of all parties are generally in favor of these reforms,” he said.
One development in Washington is the formation of a new group from the right called “Take Back Our Republic,” dedicated to reducing the impact of big money in elections. One of the founders is John Pudner, a conservative consultant who helped David Brat unseat former House majority leader Eric Cantor last year. Although Pudner has been dismissive of the long-term campaign to overturn Citizens United, there appears to be shared interest with some reformers on the left in incentivizing small donations.
“We used to have to convince people there might be a problem with so much money playing an outsize role in politics,” said Nyhart. “Now I don’t think there’s any question that this is a problem—most Americans feel that something’s kinky with this. I think what we now need to do is convince people there’s a way out.”