Politics runs on money, and it has for a long time. George Washington, a wealthy man who made his fortune initially through land speculation, spent heavily — “many times the going price for a house or a plot of land,” according to historian Gil Troy — to get elected to the House of Burgesses, the representative assembly in colonial Virginia. Part of the money, Troy reports, went to the poll watcher recording the votes. As one of Washington’s successors, Andrew Jackson, declared “Money is power.”
Jackson did not think that was a good thing. In vetoing a bill to recharter the Second Bank of the United States, he asked rhetorically “whether the people of the United States are to govern … or whether the power and money of a great corporation are to be secretly exerted to influence their judgment and control their decisions.” Old Hickory would no doubt be apoplectic if he were alive in today’s political climate.
Teddy Roosevelt called for “prohibiting all corporations from contributing to the campaign expenses of any party” back in 1906, but we know how that turned out. In a landmark decision in 2010, the Supreme Court ruled that First Amendment free speech rights — including the right to contribute to political candidates or causes — applied to corporations and other groups as well as to individuals. As a result, not only single donors but organizations, including big hedge funds, unions, or business empires can — and, most emphatically, do — pour money into election campaigns, albeit indirectly through political action committees (PACs).
While these big contributors get a lot of attention, according to the Center for Responsive Politics (opensecrets.org), only a tiny percentage of the population — 0.37% — has contributed more $200 or more this year. That small percentage, however, accounts for 70.4% of the money donated.
Perhaps surprisingly, given the reputation of the GOP as the party of the wealthy, more money has been given this year to Democratic than to Republican candidates; the three candidates who have raised the most money are Democrats, as are 18 of the top 20.
To identify the members of Congress raising the most money, 24/7 Wall St. reviewed total money raised by U.S. congressmen, congresswomen, and senators between Nov. 9, 2016 (the day after election day and start of the campaign season) and Oct. 15 (the most recent Federal Election Commission filing deadline). We only considered incumbent candidates. Congressmen and congresswomen running for Senate seats were included. All data was obtained from the FEC.