One state could reshape campaign finance and ethics reforms debate
Hill is director of operations for Take Back our Republic, which advocates for returning political power to individuals.
In the 2020 race for president, South Carolina will, once again, be the place that narrows the field from survivors – those who can simply carry on from Iowa and New Hampshire – to real competitors capable of running national campaigns for their party's nomination.
However, with the ever-expanding race on the Democratic side, the feel could be significantly different than even the massive 2016 Republican field. With the number of candidates likely to reach at least the mid-twenties, South Carolina Democrats will see far more survivors reach their state than the six their Republican counterparts saw in 2016.
And this is where the problems seen in the Palmetto State could shape the debate for the entire country.
As a conservative, I must acknowledge the brilliance of the Democrats' requirement that a candidate acquire 65,000 donors to reach the debate stage. Some of the gimmicks and desperate attempts to reach that threshold are, well, interesting – like John Delaney's offer of a $2 charitable donation for a $1 campaign gift. Engaging a donor base is both strategically important for a Democratic Party looking to beat a Trump campaign reaching historic numbers and a good thing for a government that seems to increasingly serve wealthy insiders at the expense of average Americans.
But this ploy does not answer the real question, and many proposals offered by the left fail to really solve the crisis: Who do our politicians work for?
Recently, Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand offered the most detailed proposal to date, but it was aimed entirely at curtailing individuals from giving larger amounts and giving a handout of "Democracy Dollars" to every citizen to promote public funding of campaigns. While there is much to consider about the offering, the focus there was on money, not influence – the real problem.
Let me be clear: Both sides are to blame. As you saw in the recent legislative session, reform solutions were offered to provide a little sunshine in South Carolina, a haven for dark money and a state where more than $6 million was spent by groups that do not even have to register with the state Ethics Commission. Why don't we know the exact number? Because they do not have to report how much they spend in elections.
This is a farce. Yet, conservative groups were able to build momentum behind the opposition because of the focus on individual donor reporting, something that has been used to target individuals for their beliefs. Is it more important for South Carolinians to know which individual may be giving more than $1,000 to a cause or how much a particular cause may be spending to influence an election and, perhaps, the politicians themselves? I would argue the latter, but the left refuses to expand the argument beyond a demonization of money.
Then again, look at some of the accusations facing coastal politicians regarding "pay for play" or "quid pro quo" arrangements. Much of what is being alleged has nothing to do with campaign finance spending. The question at hand is, "Who are the politicians working for – their interests or ours?"
So, as presidential hopefuls trickle into South Carolina, will voters demand real solutions? Will you ask for more than simply curtailing wealthy individuals and instead discuss a right to:
- Know how much groups are spending?
- Learn who's seeking to buy influence and respect the First Amendment at the same time?
- Engage in real ethics reform so we know who our politicians are working for?
Like him or not, Donald Trump tapped into a strong sentiment in 2016 when he offered to self-fund his campaign to demonstrate he couldn't be bought. Democrats in 2020 are engaging the grassroots donors hoping to unleash the same feeling on their side. Everyone sees that there is ground to be gained by making the case that they will return government to the people.
This is a great opportunity. It's an opportunity to demand more in the way of solutions than quick soundbites. If South Carolina can explore the real issues underscoring its own need for reform and engage presidential candidates to speak to those issues, we just might have a chance for a real debate among real contenders in 2020.
Molineaux is the co-founder and executive director of Bridge Alliance, a coalition of more than 90 civic reform groups. (Disclosure: The Bridge Alliance Education Fund is a funder of The Fulcrum.)
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