Ever since the controversial Supreme Court decision in the Citizens United case, which opened the political process to nearly limitless floods of corporate cash, the story has been how shadowy political action committees and deep-pocketed Wall Street plutocrats have effectively taken over democracy.
But in the 6th District, one of the most contested congressional seats in the country, the challengers to incumbent John Tierney are the ones with the common touch. Though it’s still early in the race, Republican Richard Tisei and Democratic challengers Marisa DeFranco and Seth Moulton are all pulling a larger percentage of their campaign donations from individual donors than Tierney - and in one case, that percentage is everything.
The monetary arms race
“One hundred percent of my campaign donations come from individuals. They always have and they always will,” said Marisa DeFranco, a Middleton immigration attorney who first rose to prominence as a fiery challenger to Elizabeth Warren in the 2012 Senate race. “I don’t see how people can be serious about getting money out of politics when they’re participating in the same monetary arms race.”
Though she only had a fraction of Warren’s name recognition and war chest, DeFranco campaigned all the way up to the nominating convention, where she came just shy of getting on the ballot as a primary challenger. Warren took on Scott Brown in the general election, with both of them signing a ‘People’s Pledge’ saying that they would donate to a charity of their opponent’s choice if they benefitted from a third-party attack ad. It was widely seen as a good-faith effort to mitigate the corrosive effects of superPAC cash, but DeFranco doesn’t think it goes far enough.
“The People’s Pledge is for amateurs,” DeFranco said. “If we were serious about election reform, we’d all agree on a spending cap.”
As of the end of 2013, DeFranco’s campaign filed reports of just over $44,000 in donations. Though she says their current total is closer to $60,000, it’s a fraction of the size of the war chests amassed by her opponents.
“If my opponents are raising more, it’s because they are spending it in the consultant cottage industry. I don’t need anyone to tell me my talking points,” DeFranco said. “I’m spending my money on a great campaign manager, and good advertising that makes an impact. When I prove you can win a Congressional race on less than $1 million, that’ll be a game changer.”
‘The deck is stacked’
Next up is Seth Moulton, a first-time candidate and Iraq war veteran. After completing four tours of duty and joining a liaison team between the Marines and the Iraqi security forces, Moulton served briefly as the managing director of the Texas Central Railway before returning to his home in Salem and beginning a career in politics.
“When I looked at this race, I asked myself two questions. Is this a race where I can make a difference, and is this a race I can win?” said Moulton. “The story of a young veteran and political newcomer taking on a partisan incumbent is really resonating with people.”
Despite building a team that includes the former campaign manager of Howard Dean, Moulton said he is consistently astounded at how much the current campaign finance system favors incumbent candidates.
“The deck is stacked. The whole system is biased towards incumbents,” Moulton said. “The hardest hurdle to overcome is name recognition, and of course they can hold a war chest year after year. Whereas I couldn’t do any fundraising before I announced my candidacy in July. I just had to look very carefully at my contacts and think, who can I convince to donate?”
Despite these difficulties, Moulton’s campaign has gained serious traction. By the end of 2013, he had raised over $600,000. Ninety-eight percent of Moulton’s donors are individuals.
“I’ve taken a small amount from Vote Vet, which supports progressive veterans running for office, as well as an Alzheimer’s organization because my grandmother suffered from it and it’s an important issue to me,” Moulton said. “But I hope to prove that a person with no family money or political connections can serve in office if you get the right people on your team.”
A huge mountain
The 2012 campaign looms large in any talk about campaign finance with Republican challenger Richard Tisei. Tisei, a former state Senate minority leader from Wakefield, came within a percentage point of winning the election, a race that was unique in the nation for both tone - unremittingly nasty and personal - and expense - nearly $7 million spent by both campaigns. And that doesn’t count third party groups, many of which were connected to the Tea Party, who spent millions on mailers and ads attacking Tierney’s family.
Though the strategy cannot have been said to work - Tisei did not win - it nonetheless cemented the reputation of the 6th District in 2014 as one of the most vulnerable seats in Congress, hence the early scrum for donors and attention. And though Tisei said he hopes the tone of this race will be different, those attacks gave him the name recognition as a serious Republican challenger in a predominantly Democrat district.
“This was one of the closest races in the country; 52 percent of voters (in the last election) voted for someone other than Tierney,” Tisei said. “For anyone, it’s a huge mountain to climb just to get known. But the first time Tierney ran for Congress, he lost, and then he won. That’s what I’m hoping will happen this time.”
Looking at the entire campaign of 2012 as well as the last quarter of 2013, 12 percent of Tisei’s donations came from PACs, and Tisei said of the money he has on hand now, 9 percent is from PACs. According to the Federal Election Commission, 61 percent of the money raised by Tisei in 2013 came from individual donors, and 36 percent from committees. Tisei raised just over $450,000 in 2013.
Tisei said that he hoped the tenor of the race this year was less personal than 2012, but that he had no control over the choices made by third party groups.
“The (focus on the) personal situation of Tierney probably hurt me, because it overshadowed what I wanted to talk about,” Tisei said. “But I think this time around, I’ve attracted a pretty large range of donors. Even nationally, there are a lot of people who want to direction of the Republican party to change. I am lucky I know a lot of people who want to contribute.”
According to Project Vote Smart, the largest contributors to Tisei’s campaign are the Gutierrez real estate development company, the Gay and Lesbian Victory Fund, and medical device company Abiomed. Tisei has made a repeal of the medical device tax one of the signature issues of his campaign.
What a congressman should be
That brings us full circle to John Tierney, the incumbent all other challengers are trying to unseat. Coming into this election cycle, he had $22,000 of cash on hand, and raised $958,120 in 2013. Of those funds, 46 percent came from committees along a traditional Democrat support spectrum - three of his five largest donors were unions. Overall, his top donor sector is labor, as opposed to Tisei’s coalition of finance, insurance and real estate.
The end result; Tierney is starting 2014 with the largest war chest of all four competitors, as well as the support of organizations with proven get-out-the-vote results.
“We have a good track record of what a congressman should be,” Tierney said. “We show up to work every day and do a good job. If you look and see what we’ve gotten done that’s productive, we’ve reduced the deficit by half, gotten rid of sequestration, and now we have a budget that is trending in the right direction.”
Having overcome a strong challenge by Tisei in 2012, Tierney has high hopes for his chances this year, and remains unfazed by his primary challengers.
“They have a high burn rate, meaning they need to spend a lot of the money they bring in to make a case for themselves. I don’t think they’ve done that yet. And as for the general election, why would anyone want to send someone down to Washington to be part of a majority that brings forward no positive agenda?” Tierney said. “I go around the district all the time, and still feel so much support. I feel that I have a plan of where I want to go on democratic values.”