Soft Money Showered on the States: Redistricting and Election 2000
By Edwin Bender
Vol. 22, No. 2, 2000 pp. 4-5
Early in the 2000 election cycle, as the presidential candidates began their campaigns in earnest, the Tennessee Republican State Executive Committee was rolling in soft-money contributions passed down from the Republican National State Elections Committee. Usually low on the RNC’s priority list for party-building funds, Federal Election Commission (FEC) records show the Tennessee Republican Party had received $423,000 as of August 1999, putting it second on the priority list behind California.
Why the largesse to a state that in the 1998 cycle ranked eighteenth on the list of recipients of RNC soft money and fourteenth in 1996?
Possibly the RNC is bent on embarrassing Vice President Al Gore on his home turf. But a more likely reason is how the 2000 Census and the subsequent redistricting will affect Tennessee legislative and congressional districts. If just two additional Republican state senate candidates win in 2000, then the Democrat Party’s control of the senate will have been broken, and Republicans will have a stronger say in how the redistricting process plays out.
Greg Wanderman, executive director of the Tennessee Democrat Party, told the National Institute on Money in State Politics (the Institute) that the Republican Patty of Tennessee has made winning two seats in the state senate a priority, specifically because of what that would mean to the redistricting process. Brian Eastin, executive director of the Tennessee Republican Party, agreed emphatically: in GOP circles. 2000 is the battle and redistricting is the war. It’s crucial. Here in Tennessee it’s the focus, taking (two seats in) the senate, because of redistricting.” And the national party has expressed “a great deal of interest” in seeing that those seats and others in states with narrow margin go to Republican candidates. RNC Chairman Jim Nicholson announced that the national party will devote millions in contributions to the effort nationally.
If the GOP succeeds in Tennessee, Eastin said, then the GOP-controlled senate could block any redistricting plan that th1 Democrat-controlled house may propose, moving the process to the courts. The state party feels it could live with a plan that was approved through the courts.
A similar pattern can be seen in Georgia where five state senate seats will alter control of the redistricting process. Georgia was third in receipt of early RNC soft money, but was twentieth in 1998 and seventh in 1996.
In Missouri, the RNC funneled more than $870,000 directly to candidates in the 1998 cycle in an effort to seize control of the legislature where Democrats now control
the house by ten seats and the senate by two.
The campaign over who will control the decennial redistricting process has been called “the D-Day of politics” by Tom Hofeller, a Republican organizer for the redistricting issue. Redistricting committees and commissions the nation over will be using new census data to reconfigure legislative and congressional election districts once census data is in. In states with legislatures that are controlled by narrow margins, a win or two in the state house or senate in 2000 could mean the difference between a redistricting committee controlled by Democrats or Republicans. And how those districts are drawn will directly affect the outcome of many congressional campaigns.
As a result, national party organizations have been flooding the states with both hard and soft money, to influence the redistricting process, and enhance their candidates’ chances of controlling Congress. The states where a win or two could make a difference, according to data from the National Council of State Legislatures, include: Arizona, Connecticut, Missouri, Nevada, New Hampshire, Oregon, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, Vermont, Washington, and Wisconsin.
An analysis of available campaign-contribution data by the Institute found that the Republican Party began its war early and has had a decided advantage going into the 2000 elections. Republican Party comittees so fair in 2000 have received more soft money than their Democrat counterparts in thirty-five of fifty states.
The contribution data analyzed was drawn from two primary sources-the FEC, which discloses contributions from national parties and sources to all fifty states–and the Institute’s databases of state records, which show funds coming to statelevel candidates and committees from all sources, including national parties and committees. This report and underlying data will be updated regularly as new state and federal data is released and processed, and will be available on the Institute’s web site (www.followthemoney.org)
Soft money is a buzzword nowadays for all that’s wrong with the nation’s political system. Special interests or individuals that have given the maximum amount directly to candidates, turn around and write enormous checks to the national parties and, with a wink and a nod, are assured that that money will be used for “party-building” activities only, as required by law. But they know that much of the money supports the party’s candidate du jour in so-called “issue advertising.”
It’s all legal, thanks to the soft-money loophole written into the campaign finance laws that came out of the Nixon-Watergate era. It must be bad, though, otherwise why have all four major candidates for presidency in 2000 called for reducing or banning soft-money contributions? Why has Congress spent thousands of hours over the past twelve years debating campaign finance reform and the soft-money loophole?
The debate continues over who can out-reform whom. All the while the checks keep coming in–more than $697 million to the two political parties over the last nine years, according to the Campaign Study Group. Expect a record amount of soft money to be contributed in the 2000 election cycle as the candidates vie for the “reformer” label, and as Gore prepares for an all-out general-election assault.
As the debate escalates and the cash flows, only the public loses. Tracking who gives soft money, where it goes, and who spends it and on what, is difficult. For many, it’s impossible. And because national party committees often funnel this money to state committees, which trade soft money for hard money to give to candidates, the money trail becomes even more difficult to follow.
Edwin Bender is research director for the National Institute on Money in State Politics in Helena, Montana. For more facts and figures on the role of soft and hard money in state campaigns, see the Institute’s website at: www.followthemoney.org.