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Despite Predictions, BCRA Has Not Been a Democratic ‘Suicide Bill’

Anthony Corrado and Thomas E. Mann

During debates in Congress and in the legal battles testing its constitutionality, critics of the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act of 2002 imagined a host of unanticipated and debilitating consequences. The law’s ban on party soft money and the regulation of electioneering advertising would, they warned, produce a parade of horribles: A decline in political speech protected by the First Amendment, the demise of political parties, and the dominance of interest groups in federal election campaigns.

The forecast that attracted the most believers — among politicians, journalists, political consultants, election-law attorneys and scholars — was the claim that Democrats would be unable to compete against Republicans under the new rules, primarily because the Democrats’ relative ability to raise funds would be severely crippled. One year ago, Seth Gitell in The Atlantic Monthly summarized this view and went so far as to call the new law “The Democratic Party Suicide Bill.” Gitell quoted a leading Democratic Party attorney, who expressed his private view of the law as “a fascist monstrosity.” He continued, “It is grossly offensive … and on a fundamental level it’s horrible public policy, because it emasculates the parties to the benefit of narrow-focus special-interest groups. And it’s a disaster for the Democrats. Other than that, it’s great.”

The core argument was straightforward. Democratic Party committees were more dependent on soft money — unlimited contributions from corporations, unions and individuals — than were the Republicans. While they managed to match Republicans in soft-money contributions, they trailed badly in federally limited hard-money contributions. Hence, the abolition of soft money would put the Democrats at a severe disadvantage in presidential and Congressional elections.

In addition, the argument went, by increasing the amount an individual could give to a candidate from $1,000 to $2,000, the law would provide a big financial boost to President Bush, who would double the $100 million he raised in 2000 and vastly outspend his Democratic challenger. Finally, the ban on soft money would weaken the Democratic Party’s get-out-the-vote efforts, particularly in minority communities, while the regulation of “issue ads” would remove a potent electoral weapon from the arsenal of labor unions, the party’s most critical supporter.

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After 18 months of experience under the law, the fundraising patterns in this year’s election suggest that these concerns were greatly exaggerated. Money is flowing freely in the campaign, and many voices are being heard. The political parties have adapted well to an all-hard-money world and have suffered no decline in total revenues. And interest groups are playing a secondary role to that of the candidates and parties.

The financial position of the Democratic party is strikingly improved from what was imagined a year ago. Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.), who opted out of public funding before the Iowa caucuses, will raise more than $200 million before he accepts his party’s nomination in Boston. The unusual unity and energy in Democrats’ ranks have fueled an extraordinary flood of small donations to the Kerry campaign, mainly over the Internet. These have been complemented by a series of successful events courting $1,000 and $2,000 donors.

Indeed, since Kerry emerged as the prospective nominee in March, he has raised more than twice as much as Bush and has matched the Bush campaign’s unprecedented media buys in battleground states, while also profiting from tens of millions of dollars in broadcast ads run by independent groups that are operating largely outside the strictures of federal election law.

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The Democratic national party committees have adjusted to the ban on soft money much more successfully than insiders had thought possible. Instead of relying on large soft-money gifts for half of their funding, Democrats have shown a renewed commitment to small donors and have relied on grassroots supporters to fill their campaign coffers. After the 2000 election, the Democratic National Committee had 400,000 direct-mail donors; today the committee has more than 1.5 million, and hundreds of thousands more who contribute over the Internet.

By the end of June, the three Democratic committees had already raised $230 million in hard money alone, compared to $227 million in hard and soft money combined at this point in the 2000 election cycle. They have demonstrated their ability to replace the soft money they received in previous elections with new contributions from individual donors.

Democrats are also showing financial momentum as the election nears, and thus have been gradually reducing the Republican financial advantage in both receipts and cash on hand. In 2003, Democrats trailed Republicans by a large margin, raising only $95 million, compared to $206 million for the GOP. But in the first quarter of this year, Democrats began to close the gap, raising $50 million, compared to $82 million for Republicans. In the most recent quarter, they narrowed the gap even further, raising $85 million, compared to the Republicans’ $96 million.

Democrats are now certain to have ample funds for the fall campaigns. Although they had less than $20 million in the bank (minus debts) at the beginning of this year, they have now banked $92 million. In the past three months, Democrats actually beat Republicans in generating cash — $47 million, compared to $31 million for the GOP.

The party, therefore, has the means to finance a strong coordinated and/or independent-spending campaign on behalf of the presidential ticket, while Congressional committees have the resources they need to play in every competitive Senate and House race, thanks in part to the fundraising support they have received from Members of Congress.

Moreover, FEC reports through June confirm that Democratic candidates in those competitive Senate and House races are more than holding their own in fundraising. They will be aided by a number of Democratic-leaning groups that have committed substantial resources to identify and turn out Democratic voters on Election Day.

Democrats are highly motivated to defeat Bush and regain control of one or both houses of Congress. BCRA has not frustrated these efforts. Democrats are financially competitive with Republicans, which means the outcome will not be determined by a disparity of resources. Put simply, the doomsday scenario conjured up by critics of the new campaign finance law has not come to pass.