Footing the Campaign Bill

This could be the most expensive year in New Hampshire campaign history

Illustration by Peter Noonan

Booze, butts and bets. This oversimplified Concord phrase explains how the New Hampshire government pays for basic services. Of course, you could add other items besides the state-run liquor stores, cheap cigarettes and the lottery, like tolls and, until recently, the complicated way we made everyone else in the country pay a little bit more to pay for our poor people’s medical needs, but I will spare you the details.

The larger point is that there is a time-honored way to pay for things in the Granite State: We make people from other states pay for it. But instead of making them just pay the bill for what happens when leaders are in office, we are increasingly letting them pay for the campaigns that elect them.

This fall will likely be the most expensive election year in state history. Just the players in the US Senate contest may spend more than $50 million, and then factor in both Congressional races, which are among the most competitive in the country. The Governor’s race will also have nearly $10 million spent and at the moment of this writing isn’t even remotely competitive. The 30 or so candidates for the state Senate will each raise well over $100,000 for a job that pays just $100 a year.

"There is a time-honored way to pay for things in the Granite State: We make people from other states pay for it."

Why? Well, first of all, campaigning simply costs more. Gone are the days of simply knocking on doors, planting yard signs and buying a few newspaper ads. You need a data-driven door-knocking program that targets the right voters, a social media presence and consultants.  Remember, unlike your family budget, campaign budgets aren’t based on what is needed; they are based on having more than the other candidate.

Second, campaign finance laws have dramatically changed. After a US Supreme Court case in 2010 called Citizens United, corporations and individuals were allowed to give unlimited funds as long as it is funneled through a group not directly linked to a specific campaign, like a nonprofit group or a new instrument called a Super PAC. This election year we have already seen Super PACs funding ads in the Senate race for both sides. There’s even a Republican congressional candidate with his own Super PAC.

Even at the state level, unions and businesses can put tens of thousands directly into campaigns through a legal sleight of hand.

Third, it’s not about us. It is about control in Washington. Probably the biggest reason there is so much out-of-state money trying to influence our elections is that the stakes are so high here. Who wins the contest here could well determine which party controls the Senate. The US House of Representatives shouldn’t be as competitive, but with the money that will be raised there are only a few places to spend it where it will really matter. About 30 of the 435 seats in the House are remotely competitive. Both of the Granite State’s Congressional seats are among those 30.

As for the Governor’s race, potential presidential candidates of all kinds want to raise and spend money hoping it will result in an endorsement when the state’s presidential primary rolls around.

Yes, the out-of-staters are spending the money. We have the vote.

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