19 things we learned about money in politics in 2019

The year in campaign finance had highs and lows (mostly lows).

SOURCEBrennan Center for Justice

19. The 2020 election will be expensive. By December 1, candidates for president had collectively raised $624 million according to Open Secrets. President Trump is leading with $165 million. 

18. It’s good to be rich (example 1). Former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, a billionaire who was a late entrant into the Democratic race, will skip the early presidential primary states and instead will spend $37 million of his own money to try to win on Super Tuesday.

17. It’s good to be rich (example 2). Tom Steyer, another billionaire in the Democratic primary, is presently 96 percent self-financed. Put another way, his campaign has raised $50 million and $48 million is from Steyer himself.

16. It’s good to be “rich” (example 3). “Billionaire” President Trump is not paying for his reelection. In 2016, he made a big show of claiming he was self-financing. He actually only paid for less than 20 percent of his 2016 run. As of December 1, he’s put in less than $10,000 of his own money.

15. State elections can still rack up a hefty price tag. In 2019, Virginia’s legislative races cost over $100 million, and candidates vying to be Kentucky’s next governor spent over $22 million.

14. The Securities and Exchange Commission is pro-dark money. The agency chose the opening of the impeachment to roll out proposed rule changes that will make it harder for shareholders to fight back against corporate dark money.

13. The Supreme Court didn’t expand Citizens United. In May 2019, the Supreme Court declined to review Massachusetts’ corporate contribution ban, leaving such bans in place for 20 states and in federal elections.

12. But the Supreme Court is still hostile to campaign finance laws generally. In Thompson v. Hebdon, a case about whether Alaska’s contribution limits are too low too, the court’s decision kept contribution limits in place for 2020 — but also likely made it harder for states to defend low limits. (This is follow up on a case called Randall v. Sorrell, in which the court found that Vermont’s limits were unconstitutionally low.)

11. Roger Stone’s comeuppance arrived. Special Counsel Robert Mueller declined to bring criminal charges for possible campaign finance violations against the Trump 2016 campaign, though charges were brought against Trump campaign surrogate Roger Stone for lying to Congress about Wikileaks in the 2016 election. Stone was convicted on all charges in November 2019.

10. States and localities continue to lead campaign finance innovations. In November 2019, Seattle City Council races used democracy vouchers, and San Francisco approved a new campaign finance law which includes limits on dark money. Meanwhile, New York State may finally get public financing.

9. Online political ads are a flash point. In October 2019, Twitter got out of the political ad game stating that it would not run paid political ads in 2020. Meanwhile Facebook doubled down on political ads decided to let political lies flow

8. Small donors make a huge difference. Outside of House Leadership, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) led 2019 third quarter fundraising for Congress. This is particularly impressive because 81 percent of her donors were small (under $200). Maybe her “Netflix for Democracy” model works.

7. You scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours. Republican politicians are staying at Trump properties. Meanwhile, Trump is fundraising for senators with a likely impeachment trial looming, including adult sleep overs at Camp David. And the Republican National Committee bought enough copies of Donald Trump Jr.’s book to land him at the top of the New York Times best-seller list. ()

6. The Federal Election Commission remains nonfunctional. The FEC lost its quorum in August and cannot enforce campaign finance law effectively until another Commissioner is appointed. This leaves the Justice Department as the last cop on the campaign finance beat.

5. You can’t pay for five — count them — five mistresses with campaign funds. Rep. Duncan Hunter’s (R-CA) criminal campaign finance case got a lot racier with allegations that five mistresses and one pet rabbit were involved. In December, he pleaded guilty to using over $150,000 in campaign funds for personal use.

4. Crime with a soon-to-be president doesn’t pay. Trump’s former lawyer Michael Cohen reported to jail in May 2019 for breaking campaign finance laws. The president is still named as “Individual 1” in Cohen’s criminal case.

3. No things of value from foreigners are allowed (example 1). In June, the New York Times reported that a Ukrainian Russian named Pavel Fuks said he paid $200,000 to attend the Trump 2017 inaugural but says he was duped. If true, this would be on top of the $50,000 that another Ukrainian spent for tickets to the Trump inaugural as revealed in Sam Patten’s plea deal. None of that is legal.

2. No things of value from foreigners are allowed (example 2). Rudy Giuliani associates Lev Parnas and Igor Fruman were arrested. Lev apparently had five cellphones, Trump straws, cash, and the business card of a top Ukrainian anti-corruption prosecutor on him. They are now charged with campaign finance crimes including funneling foreign money into the U.S. election.

1. No things of value from foreigners are allowed (example 3). President Trump’s looming impeachment swirls around a possible foreign thing of value. This time alleged the thing of value is “dirt” on Joe Biden in exchange for military aid for Ukraine. The revelation of this bribe by a whistleblower led to the current impeachment inquiry by the House. Meanwhile, both Trump and Democrats are using impeachment for fundraising for the 2020 election.


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Ciara Torres-Spelliscy is a Brennan Center Fellow and a Professor of Law at Stetson University College of Law. She is the author of the book, Corporate Citizen? An Argument for the Separation of Corporation and State (Carolina Academic Press 2016) and of Safeguarding Markets from Pernicious Pay to Play: A Model Explaining Why the SEC Regulates Money in Politics. Prior to joining Stetson’s faculty, she was Counsel in the Democracy Program of the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU School of Law. She was an associate at Arnold & Porter LLP and a staffer for Senator Richard Durbin. Professor Torres-Spelliscy has testified before Congress, and has helped draft legislation and Supreme Court briefs. As well as publishing in the Montana Law Review, University of San Francisco Law Review and the NYU Journal of Legislation and Public Policy, and chapters in books, she has been published in the New York Times, New York Law Journal, Boston Review, Business Week, Forbes, The Atlantic, USA Today, The Hill, Huffington Post, Judicature, Salon, and CNN.com. In 2013, Professor Torres-Spelliscy was named as a member of the Lawyers of Color's "50 Under 50" list of minority law professors making an impact in legal education. She is also a former member of the Board of Directors of the National Institute on Money in State Politics.