It’s time to limit campaign war chests

Reining in power of incumbency could produce more political competition

AN AVERAGE MASSACHUSETTS House of Representatives candidate spends $20,000 to $30,000 to win election, but House Speaker Robert DeLeo maintains nearly $700,000 in his campaign accounts. A successful Massachusetts Senate election can average closer to $50,000 per candidate, but Sen. Harriette Chandler of Worcester and Sen. Bruce Tarr of Gloucester have over $200,000 and $400,000 in their accounts, respectively.

What is going on here?

No one wants to challenge an incumbent with a huge financial advantage. Not surprisingly, this has become a problem in Massachusetts. In 2016, the state was named one of the least competitive states for elections in the nation by Ballotpedia. In 2018, roughly two-thirds of the people running for legislative seats faced no challenger at all. Massachusetts is obligated to facilitate free and fair elections, but in many instances it has evidently fostered overflowing war chests in lieu of healthy electoral competition.

Just how severe is the problem? Sen. Mark Montigny of New Bedford reported nearly $900,000 in his campaign accounts at the conclusion of 2018; his last challenger was independent Raimundo Delgado in 2006. The Center for Public Integrity found that DeLeo had the third-largest war chest of any unopposed state legislator in the entire country.

While there are a number of reasons for the lack of political competition in Massachusetts, the hundreds of thousands of dollars that State House incumbents carry from election to election definitely discourages challengers from taking them on. Scores of papers in the academic literature have shown that large campaign accounts, when carried from election to election, structurally disincentivize opposing candidates from mounting a challenge. If we are serious about making elections in Massachusetts competitive, we can no longer allow incumbents to enjoy tremendous political advantages against challengers.

After all, when our elections are uncompetitive, new political entrants are rare, particularly those from more disadvantaged backgrounds. The Legislature contains only 18 members of color across both the House and Senate (less than 9 percent of the overall body), even though nearly 30 percent of Massachusetts residents are people of color. If we are indeed serious about changing this, we need to make elected offices more accessible.

To that end, limiting the amount of money that politicians can carry over from an election could  dramatically level the playing field. Massachusetts wouldn’t be the first state to limit campaign war chests, and the idea has been floated in the Legislature before – unsuccessfully. However, it’s been nearly a decade since we seriously considered it. Reining in campaign war chests could also reduce questionable expenditures – it’s harder to splurge for BMW lease payments when you’re grappling with a much smaller amount of money.

Minnesota is one state that has limited the size of campaign war chests. Officials determine a reasonable cost of election for each office; those who take public funding are then obligated to spend within the cap. At the conclusion of each Minnesota state election, candidates with more than 25 percent of the spending limit (also known as the “base spending limit”) left over in their campaign account must return the money to the state party or to the state’s pool of money available for public financing of elections.

For governor of Minnesota, the current base spending limit is $1,636,200. Thus, the most amount that any candidate for governor can carry over to another election is $409,050. Anything above that limit flows back to the party or the state. In Massachusetts, Gov. Charlie Baker – who has been coy about seeking re-election to a third term – sits on a war chest worth over $1.4 million.

Meet the Author

Rachel Adele Dec

Public Affairs Associate, MassINC
Unless we put a stop to it, money is going to continue to flow into the coffers of politicians who truly don’t need it, yet choose to hoard cash to ward off challengers and pay for personal expenses. As we continue to weigh changes to our political system, it is crucial that we consider the importance of improving the elections themselves. Politicians are only as legitimate as the elections that they win, just as they are given their mandate only by those who voted for them. Ending the domination of these massive campaign accounts is essential to ensuring that our elections are a true competition of ideas, not a battle of war chests.

Rachel Adele Dec is a public affairs associate at MassINC, the nonprofit parent of CommonWealth magazine. Her opinion is her own.