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Candidates and political action committees spent nearly $17 billion on midterms

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

The 2022 election is the most expensive midterm election yet. Candidates and political action committees spent nearly $17 billion on state and federal campaigns. That's according to data compiled by OpenSecrets, which is a nonpartisan research group that tracks money in politics. Ciara Torres-Spelliscy is a fellow at the Brennan Center and an expert in campaign finance and election law. Welcome to the program.

CIARA TORRES-SPELLISCY: Good morning.

INSKEEP: How is it that campaigns keep getting more expensive cycle after cycle?

TORRES-SPELLISCY: So I see the Supreme Court's fingerprints all over this election. The Supreme Court has been laying the groundwork for the past 46 years, starting with Buckley v. Valeo, which allowed rich individuals to spend all they wanted on elections. And then the court expanded that right to spend to corporations in Citizens United. And the result has been the federal election was $9 billion and the state elections were $7.8 billion. And both of those numbers are up from the last midterm.

INSKEEP: Can I just note, I think this is probably still less money that people spend on advertising for cars or video games or shoes or any number of things. Is it really that bad?

TORRES-SPELLISCY: I certainly think so. I think it distorts our politics, and it warps who can even be elected.

INSKEEP: What do you mean?

TORRES-SPELLISCY: So one of the things that happens is we put candidates through a money primary before they go through a real primary. And if a particular candidate can't fundraise, they are written off as being nonserious. But the ability to fundraise and the ability to govern are two different skill sets.

INSKEEP: Are there individual wealthy people who have raised their voices in a way that makes them far larger than a single vote?

TORRES-SPELLISCY: Indeed. So Citizens United and Buckley empowered large donors to spend lavishly in our elections. And just 10 wealthy individuals poured over half a billion dollars combined into this year's election, according to our good friends over at OpenSecrets. And in this election, there was a lot of money from crypto and the tech sector. Sam Bankman-Fried spent 38 million. And Larry Ellison spent 31 million.

INSKEEP: Wow. I want to note something. You said that the Supreme Court has been chipping away at campaign finance restrictions for 46 years. I suppose we should note the context. After the Watergate scandals, there were a lot of questions about the way that political candidates were spending money. Congress stepped in, attempted to regulate this. They even said that presidential campaigns, general election campaigns, would be publicly financed. That is the structure that was set up - am I not mistaken? - that has been gradually eroding and is pretty much gone at this point. Is that right?

TORRES-SPELLISCY: That is correct. Buckley, which is sometimes misknown for the theory that money is speech, looked at that Watergate-era reform and sort of tore pieces out of it. And the Supreme Court has been dismantling campaign finance ever since.

INSKEEP: Is it at least some consolation that in some cases, although not all, we have some idea who is spending the money?

TORRES-SPELLISCY: So one of the problems that we have in campaign finance is the dark money problem. Dark money is money that is spent on a political campaign where voters can't tell who the original donor was. And in the 2020 election, there was $1 billion of dark money spent.

INSKEEP: Wow.

TORRES-SPELLISCY: In this election, it looks like it's lower, which is typical of a midterm, compared to a presidential election. But there has been at least $100 million of dark money in the 2022 election.

INSKEEP: If it's not disclosed, is it possible we don't even know about violations of the few laws that there are? For example, it might be foreign money. We wouldn't know.

TORRES-SPELLISCY: That is the big problem. If we don't know where money is coming from, it could be coming from an illegal source, including a foreign source, which is not allowed under our laws.

INSKEEP: Ciara Torres-Spelliscy of the Brennan Center. Thanks so much.

TORRES-SPELLISCY: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.