MICHIGAN — One of the old standbys of political journalism—“follow the money”—sometimes gives way to something simpler: “look at the money.”
What is “look at the money” reporting? It’s campaign coverage that tallies up fund-raising totals to compare who has more and who has less. Though this is basically horse race coverage, it can be illuminating and even public-spirited work. As Rick Pluta, managing editor and Lansing bureau chief for Michigan Radio, told me, these figures can be crucial information to “give people a sense of who’s credible” in a political campaign.
But “look at the money” coverage doesn’t explore where that money is coming from—which means it represents a missed opportunity to tell stories about power and influence in Washington DC.
Consider the articles that appeared in the Detroit Free Press and The Detroit News after former U.S. congressman Pete Hoekstra won the Republican nomination for U.S. Senate on Aug. 7, setting up a general election contest against incumbent Democrat Debbie Stabenow. Both newspapers noted that Stabenow has far out-raised Hoekstra, and has millions more cash on hand—an advantage that is mirrored in her decisive lead in the polls. And both newspapers relied on the same source—Bill Ballenger, editor of the Inside Michigan Politics newsletter—to suggest that Hoekstra could quickly catch up in the money race if he can spark the interest of national super PACs, which have no donation limits.
But as for the sources of the money that have already been raised by the rival campaigns, the stories are silent.
That’s too bad, because the information is interesting. According to The Detroit News, Stabenow plans to attack Hoekstra over his support for the Wall Street bailout, which she opposed. That line of attack dovetails with a public letter written by Stabenow in May, which urged the leading figures in federal oversight institutions to “get the rules written and to fully implement” the Dodd-Frank law reforming financial regulation.
So it’s somewhat surprising to learn that, according to Open Secrets, Stabenow is the one raking in donations from the financial industry. JP Morgan is her second-largest donor in this cycle ($71,000). Goldman Sachs gave her $34,500, Morgan Stanley contributed $30,650, and Bank of New York Mellon threw another $30,500 into the pot. Beyond the big banks, Blackstone Group, a financial services firm, gave Stabenow $45,700, and Vestar Capital Partners, a private equity firm, gave her $39,950. Sullivan & Cromwell, the international law firm that describes itself as serving “leading global financial institutions seeking non-traditional investments, sales and restructuring arrangements in connection with the global credit and financial crisis” donated $32,700 to the Stabenow campaign.
Altogether, the financial industry accounts for seven of Stabenow’s top 20 donors, contributing $221,100 of the $772,091 given by that group. According to the Open Secrets breakdown by industry, she has collected $655,926 from securities and investment firms. That’s more than 21 times what Hoekstra has raised from that group—a gap that’s striking even taking into account how much longer she’s been preparing to run for the seat. And according to another Open Secrets page, Stabenow ranks fifth among all senators in cash collected from the securities and investment industry during 2011-2012.
What’s going on here? With the exception of Goldman Sachs, none of these companies backed Stabenow with large donations in her 2006 race—well before the banking and housing market collapse. And while the banking industry still favored Stabenow over her Republican opponent that year, it was not nearly as large a pillar of her support.
One significant distinction between then and now is that in 2009 Stabenow was appointed chair of the agriculture, nutrition, and forestry committee in the Senate, a role that she highlighted in her “implement Wall Street reform” letter; at the same time, she was appointed to the budget, finance, and energy committees. Todd Spangler, Washington correspondent for the Free Press, suggested to me that Stabenow’s fund-raising shouldn’t simply be compared to Hoekstra’s contributions, but to other Senate incumbents, particularly those chairing committees.
“Wall Street, trade groups—and corporations in general—tend to give to incumbents of both parties, because they want access,” Spangler wrote in an email. He added that chairs of committees, regardless of party, “tend to get more because they wield more power, not necessarily because they’re beholden to these special interests but because these special interests at least want to their sides of the stories heard.”
This is a good point about how parties slide incumbents into favorable positions, and a useful reminder that taking an industry’s money doesn’t mean a politician is carrying their water—at least not on every issue. After all, votes are votes: Stabenow did oppose the bank bailouts, while Hoekstra voted for them as a member of the House, and she’s hardly hidden from that position even as she has become a beneficiary of Wall Street. (We’re setting aside for now the important question of whether TARP was good for the public.)
Still, the apparent tension here between Stabenow’s rhetoric and record on the one hand, and her fund-raising on the other, is worth flagging for readers as an illustration of how influence is maintained in Washington. It also merits some further scrutiny: What’s Stabenow’s record on some lower-profile issues that matter to the financial industry? And looking forward, what are some issues on which she wields influence, and about which the industry might be eager to have its side of the story heard? A place to start exploring might be the Commodity Futures Trading Commission, which is overseen by the agriculture committee.
In Hoekstra’s case, meanwhile, is there anything in his record that—in the eyes of Wall Street—cuts against his support of the bailout?
When I spoke with Pluta, he pointed to the barriers to tracking the flow of political money. “Campaign finance laws are really, really inadequate,” he said. “The final phase of spending [before an election], when people really dump money into it—we don’t find out [the data] until after the election.” The emergence of super PACs, he said, enormously complicates the work.
Pluta means to navigate the challenge by focusing his reporting on the long legislative records of both Stabenow and Hoekstra. “One of the things Hoekstra is going to have to explain is his vote on the Wall Street bailouts, especially vis-a-vis his vote on the auto bailouts,” he said. (Hoekstra, like Stabenow, supported the federal loans to the auto industry, though he has since criticized their implementation.)
The point about the lack of campaign finance transparency is well taken, and a focus on the candidates’ records is on the mark. But there is readily available information on political money, like the Open Secrets numbers, that can enrich an investigation of those records—and that hasn’t consistently gotten the attention it deserves from political journalists. Even if there’s often not a direct line between a donation and a vote, the origin of political money offers some hints about whose interests a politician may be listening to, whose calls might get returned, and which points interest groups have decided to focus on. And that, in turn, informs what questions voters—and reporters—should be asking candidates now.