Study Outlines Influence of Big Money in Md. Elections

    This may belong in the “Dog Bites Man” category of news, and yet it’s startling to think about just the same.

    A new report on campaign fundraising in Maryland shows that candidates for governor raised $70.1 million over the last three election cycles — and that the lion’s share came in big donations, often from individuals, businesses and other entities not eligible to vote in the state.

    The statistics, released Wednesday by the Maryland Public Interest Research Group Foundation, are part of the government watchdog organization’s efforts to lessen the influence of big money on state politics and promote campaign finance reform.

    The report, which analyzed data from 17 candidates who ran in the 2010, 2014 and 2018 gubernatorial elections, found that 84% of the money raised came in contributions over $250, even though those contributions represented just 19% of total donations to candidates. Sixty-five percent of the money raised came in increments of $1,000 or more.

    “Our current campaign finance system encourages candidates to raise as much money as possible as quickly as possible,” said Maryland PIRG Democracy Associate Rishi Shah, one of the researchers on the project. “And as the data suggests, this incentives candidates to spend an increasing amount of time chasing big checks from wealthy donors and special interests.”

    In 2018, when Gov. Lawrence J. Hogan Jr. (R) won reelection, 114,181 donors collectively contributed $29,335,448.64 to gubernatorial candidates. 109,429 contributors forked over $21,789,356.88, while 4,537 businesses, organizations and other entities contributed $6,251,135.26.

    In 2014, Hogan’s first election, 45,083 donors collectively contributed $20,392,640.84 to gubernatorial candidates. Contributions from 39,513 individuals totaled $12,325,642.92, while 5,315 businesses and organizations contributed $6,635,989.63.

    In 2010, when then-Gov. Martin J. O’Malley (D) won a second term in a rematch with former Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. (R), 61,724 donors overall contributed $20,425,981.68. This includes 56,304 donations totaling $13,920,138.11 from individuals and 5,213 from entities totaling $6,128,908.16.

    While the report found that Maryland residents have made more than 50,000 contributions to gubernatorial campaigns in the past three elections, that’s barely 1% of the state’s voting age population, which is more than 4.7 million. And 52% of the money raised does not come from Maryland voters but rather from out-of-state donors, including corporations and political action committees.

    “It’s possible that Marylanders don’t donate because they aren’t being asked or they don’t feel compelled to donate,” the PIRG report says. “If candidates are spending their time courting large donors, they have less time to speak with everyday voters and less reason to ask them for a small
    donation. Likewise, if voters see candidates hosting expensive fundraisers, they may be less likely to see their small contribution as impactful. Whatever the cause, this disparity allows a small donor class to control campaign

    A solution, the watchdog group suggests, is implementing a small-donor matching program for Maryland’s gubernatorial race, similar to the program used in Montgomery County’s 2018 elections. Such a program would allow candidates to opt-in to receive limited matching public funds for small contributions from individuals — if they agree to refuse large contributions or money from corporations.

    “By fixing and funding our gubernatorial small donor campaign finance system we can build a stronger democracy and help ensure our elected officials are accountable to Marylanders, not wealthy special interests,” Shah said.

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    Josh Kurtz
    Co-founder and Editor Josh Kurtz is the leading chronicler of Maryland politics and government. He began covering the State House in 1995 for The Gazette newspapers, and has been writing about state and local politics ever since. He later became an editor at Roll Call, the Capitol Hill newspaper, and spent eight years at E&E News, an online subscription-only publisher of news websites covering energy and environmental issues. For seven of those years, he led a staff of 20 reporters at E&E Daily, which covers energy and environmental policy on Capitol Hill and in national politics. For 6 1/2 years he wrote a weekly column on state politics for Center Maryland and has written for several other Maryland publications as well. Kurtz has given speeches and appeared on TV and radio shows about Maryland politics through the years.