The 2021 Off-Year Elections: Triumph of the Millionaires


            The November 2, 2021 governor's races in Virginia and New Jersey, the only non-judicial statewide races on the ballot, were scrutinized for portents of trends for the forthcoming 2022 mid-terms.


            In Virginia, Republican Glen Youngkin defeated former Democratic Governor Terry McAuliffe by 63,688 votes out of 3,276,512 cast or 1.9%. Turnout surged from 47.59% in 2017 to 55.05%, validating the adage that they turn out to throw them out.


            In New Jersey, Governor Phil Murphy managed to hold on to win re-election by 114,286 votes out of 2,648,814 or 4.3%. Turnout rose from 38.5% when Murphy was elected in 2017 to 40.5%. New Jersey's voters were decidedly unenthusiastic about the choice on offer. Murphy was the first Democratic governor to win re-election since Brendan Byrne in 1977, 44 years ago.


            With Republicans winning one race and Democrats the other, both by narrow margins, most pundits saw the election as a draw, with a slight Republican edge because Virginia flipped from Democratic, although Murphy broke the trend on failing Democratic re-election races.


            Overlooked is the fact that both Youngkin and Murphy bought their respective party's nominations. Both are multimillionaires. Youngkin was co-CEO of the Carlyle Group, a private equity leveraged buy-out firm, while Murphy made his fortune with Goldman Sachs. Murphy had some governmental and political experience, working in Europe, as Democratic Party Finance Chair in 2006, and as Ambassador to Germany under Obama, but none at the state level.


            The bigger point, that the top jobs are being reserved for the super-wealthy who know little or nothing about the actual workings of the government over which they are going to preside the situation is the same in both parties. No matter how hard-working, competent, or experienced state legislators may be in either state or either party, it is unlikely that they can rise to the top of their field on the basis of accomplishment.


            The 2018 Illinois governor's race between incumbent Bruce Rauner and J.B. Pritzger was between two multimillionaires. Rauner, chairman of a private equity firm for 30 years before becoming governor, earned $180 million in 2015. Pritzger's family owns Hyatt Hotels.


            Donald Trump started life in his family's real estate firm that was worth an estimated $200 million in 1974, and the Bush family fortune comes from the Wall Street firm of Brown Brothers Harriman.


Money is Speech


            So, how did it happen that the oligarchs have become our elected leaders? Simply, because the Supreme Court in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission (2010) ruled that money is speech. Citizens United ruled that money is a form of political speech and that any limits on political spending were unconstitutional. Just as the First Amendment protects free speech, it also protects the unlimited expenditure of money for political speech.


            Fine, you say. So, if I like a candidate, can I give that candidate unlimited amounts of money to buy the political speech that is protected by the Constitution? The answer is no. The Supreme Court permits limits on campaign contributions because otherwise the contributor is buying influence or creating the appearance of corruption. Neat system, isn't it? It allows only the personally wealthy to spend unlimited amounts of their own money on political campaigns. Sounds fair to me.


            But wait, there's more. Not only are ordinary citizens limited as to how much money they can contribute to candidates of their choice, but if they're foolish enough to support an independent candidate who is not a Republican or Democrat, their candidate can be excluded from publicly-funded forums and debates because (get this) their poll numbers are so low that they can't win.


            This piece of hypocritical legerdemain came from the Forbes v. Arkansas Educational Television Commission and was one of Bill Clinton's contributions to the two-party system. During the 1992 race for Arkansas' Third Congressional District, the Arkansas Educational Television Commission (AETC) ‒ a state-owned public television broadcaster ‒ sponsored a debate between the major party candidates. Running as an independent candidate with little popular support, Ralph Forbes sought to participate in the debate but was denied permission.


            The Supreme Court held in a 6-3 decision that public broadcasters could selectively exclude participants from their sponsored forums because they had little support. Forbes couldn't be excluded because of any of his opinions or positions like on abortion or gun control, but he could be because of low poll numbers. This empowering of polling over a citizen's first amendment right to petition is a radical reallotment of political power from the public to the private sphere.


            In effect, the Supreme Court has outlawed poor or political candidates of modest means. Until Reagan became president, there had been an "equal time" provision in the Federal Communications Act designed to ensure that all points of view in the political debate were heard. In 1998, the Supreme Court ruled that Forbes, even though he filed a valid petition with 2,000 signatures, could be excluded from a debate funded by public money. This decision makes it difficult, if not impossible, for little-known candidates to gain popular support without spending money.


            In addition, Forbes' supporters were limited as to how much money they were allowed to contribute to a campaign. The campaign contribution limit favors the independently wealthy candidates who can just write big checks to their own campaigns and spend all their time and effort contacting voters to make their case. The non-wealthy candidate first has to spend her or his time raising money from many people before being able to campaign for votes. All these obstacles combined explain why the multimillionaires are dominating the elective offices.


            The rationale for these obvious injustices is that the Supreme Court thinks favoring a two-party system of Republicans and Democrats promotes stability. The only problem is that giving Republicans and Democrats a monopoly on political power does not necessarily grant them a monopoly on viable political solutions to the problems being faced by the voters.


            Denying voters' alternatives is precisely what the United States Constitution was designed to prevent. If there is no peaceful way of being heard, if the political playing field is not level, violence is inevitable.


            Look for the independently wealthy candidates to be the big winners in 2022.


Return to Institute of Election Analysis Home Page

Contact: Joshua Leinsdorf