When the Democratic National Committee meets in Washington this week, Nevada State Party Chair Judith Whitmer and more than 30 DNC members will support DNC Resolution 19, calling on the party to ban black money in the primaries. democrats.
No one can doubt that action is imperative. According to the nonpartisan research group OpenSecrets, black money topped $1 billion in the 2020 presidential race. This year, the Wesleyan Media Project reported, nearly 60% of all ads in the Democratic House primaries were purchased by sources that did not disclose, or only partially disclosed, their donors.
An increasing amount of money from corporations and Republican mega-donors is pouring into the Democratic primaries to defeat progressive candidates. Perhaps the most notorious example is the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) and its various affiliated PACs and outlets, which reportedly raised $1 million each from top Republican superdonors Bernie Marcus and Paul Singer in the part of a war chest used against progressive primary candidates. More than $2 million has been poured into largely negative ads against Summer Lee, a progressive state legislator who is running in Pittsburgh accusing her of being a disloyal Democrat. Lee started out as the favorite and barely survived, but other progressive women of color — including Donna Edwards in Maryland, Nina Turner in Ohio, Jessica Cisneros in Texas and Nida Allam in North Carolina — suffered a defeat amid the flood of negatives. ads funded by AIPAC and other outside groups.
AIPAC’s example will only add to the torrents of black money that will pour into the primaries in the future. Due to partisan gerrymandering, less than 15% of congressional districts have now contested the general election. Otherwise, the primary effectively decides the winner, and since it is generally less costly than a general election, more and more well-heeled donors will have an interest in stepping in early. As Whitmer told the Nation, the coming “avalanche” of black money is getting to the point where “people are losing their right to choose their own candidates.”
The DNC has the power to act. The courts have ruled that political parties are essentially voluntary organizations with the right of free association. They can establish their own rules for selecting their candidates.
A ban on black money from outside groups will not be easy to enforce. The Whitmer resolution calls on the party to establish mechanisms to investigate and expose the use of black money, and to empower states to establish primary rules to ensure transparency.
Likely measures could include requiring all candidates to disavow outdoor advertising by groups with undisclosed donors. Sanctions against contracts with campaign companies and agents who work for offending groups would be even more effective. Campaign advertising has become a notorious racket for consultants, and endangering the flow of pulp to major advertising, consulting and fundraising firms would have a sobering effect.
The real concern about partial campaign finance reforms—that no candidate or party can “unilaterally disarm”—does not apply here. The DNC would reform competitions between competing Democrats — and any black money bans would surely help curb interference by Republican interests in these elections.
With progressives being the big targets of outside money, it is no surprise that progressive leaders have led the call for reform. Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) formally called on the DNC to take action, saying “black money is black money whether it’s funded by Republican billionaires or Democratic billionaires.” If the deluge continues, Sanders argues, it will “demoralize the Democratic base and alienate potential Democratic voters.”
In June, Congressional Progressive Caucus leaders Pramila Jayapal (Wash.), Mark Pocan (Wis.) and Jamie B. Raskin (Md.) urged the heads of the party’s three main bodies – the DNC, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee and the Democratic Senate Campaign Committee — to ban SuperPAC money in the Democratic primaries, warning that “record sums of millionaires and billionaires have infiltrated our primaries and … drowned out popular campaigns of progressive, working-class candidates.”
The DNC meets on Friday. Its meetings are traditionally tightly controlled from above. The president – now Jaime Harrison – takes his cues from the White House. He usually holds enough proxies from DNC members who cannot attend the meeting to guarantee the outcome.
Passing Whitmer’s resolution should not be controversial. House and Senate Democrats voted overwhelmingly for HR 1, the sweeping voting rights bill introduced in 2021 that included strong campaign finance elements. President Biden campaigned for its passage. That bill was ultimately defeated, but now the Democratic National Committee can take steps to clean up its own house. It should not fail this test.