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‘The depth of your pocket should not determine the volume of your voice,’ says Emily Scarr, director of the Maryland Public Interest Research Group. (The Daily Record/Bryan P. Sears)

Report cites concern about big campaign donations

Nearly two-thirds of all donations made to candidates in Maryland congressional primaries came from donors who contributed $1,000 or more.

The report released Tuesday by the Maryland Public Interest Research Group and Demos, a liberal think tank that focuses on economic and government issues, places Maryland in the middle of the pack nationally when it comes to such donations. Those large donors account for 63 percent of the donations in the 2014 congressional primary in Maryland, just slightly below the national average of 65 percent.

“We’ve found across the board that the vast majority of donors are coming from large donors,” said Emily Scarr, director of MaryPIRG. “While some will say Maryland is in the middle of the pack, it’s still bad that 63 percent of donations come from donors giving $1,000 or more.

More than $4 million was donated to Maryland congressional candidates for the 2014 primary election of that 37 percent came from donors who gave less than $1,000. Overall, the report found that it took just 122 large donors to exceed 2,440 smaller donors who gave $200 or less.

Scarr said the report highlights the need to reform national campaign finance laws, including the need for a constitutional amendment that would overturn the controversial U.S. Supreme Court decision commonly referred to as Citizens United, which prohibited the government from restricting independent political contributions from nonprofits, corporations, unions and other associations.

Advocates such as Scarr and Common Cause are also concerned about subsequent Supreme Court decisions such as McCutcheon v. Federal Election Commission, which erased aggregate federal campaign donation limits. Several states including Maryland followed suit. This spring, the Maryland State Board of Elections lifted the $10,000 aggregate limit for state and local races.

Scarr acknowledged that the report released Tuesday addressed only the issue of individual donations and not the issue of independent expenditures and so-called “dark money” — contributions to nonprofits that don’t have to be disclosed.

Nationally, Texas leads the country with 80 percent of donations coming from donors who gave $1,000 or more. In 15 other states those large donations exceeded 70 percent, according to the report.

The numbers in Texas are skewed by Dallas millionaire dentist David Alameel who has spent $9.5 million as of September in his effort to unseat incumbent U.S. Sen. John Cornyn. No other self-funded candidate has spent more, according to a report by the Dallas Morning News.

Scarr said self-funded campaigns are no better than those in which large donors can outspend smaller ones.

“The depth of your pocket should not determine the volume of your voice,” said Scarr, who called for laws limiting donations to as little as $200 per candidate.

Scarr said her organization supports laws like the Fair Elections program passed late last month by the Montgomery County Council.

The program, which was advocated by Common Cause Maryland, provides matching donations to candidates for County Council or county executive who agree to limit their fundraising by accepting only low-dollar donations from individual donors in their districts.

“This growing inequality between major donors and everyday Marylanders at the congressional level is certainly growing more apparent at the state and local level,” said Jennifer Bevan-Dangel, executive director of Common Cause Maryland. “Now that the Supreme Court has struck down our aggregate limits, major donors can flood legislative and county races with as many $6,000 donations as they choose.”

That $6,000 donation limit to individual campaigns starts in January, following the 2014 elections. Currently the limit for local and state races in Maryland is $4,000.

But laws creating such limits pose other problems, according to Ilya Shapiro, senior fellow in constitutional studies and editor-in-chief of the Supreme Court Review, which is published by the Cato Institute, a libertarian think tank.

Shapiro said such reductions in the amount of money that can be donated in an effort to level the playing field can cross the First Amendment.

“The point isn’t that money is speech — it’s not,” Shapiro said. “Restricting something that facilitates speech is really restricting speech.”

Shapiro said the report also doesn’t take into account other factors such as incumbency, national political sentiment and other issues on whether or not a candidate wins. Money — even when campaigns are self-funded — doesn’t always guarantee victory, Shapiro said.

A 2013 report in the Washington Times found that in federal elections since 1990, only 42 of the 1,752 self-funded candidates won — a success rate of 2.4 percent.

Republican Linda McMahon spent $100 million in her two unsuccessful attempts to win a U.S. Senate seat in Connecticut. Locally, former Maryland state Sen. E.J. Pipkin spent more than $1 million of his own money in an attempt to unseat Democratic incumbent Sen. Barbara Mikulski in 2004. Two years earlier, investment banker Oz Bengur spent $50,000 of his own money in an unsuccessful Democratic primary election challenge against Dutch Ruppersberger, who was seeking his first term in Congress.

“It seems that the correlation between individual spending and election outcome is not there,” Shapiro said.