The 2020 U.S. Senate race in Kansas showed the power of small political donations

Democratic U.S. Senate candidate Barbara Bollier reported raising $13.5 million in the third quarter for the largest single-quarter fundraising total of any candidate in Kansas history. She is running for the open seat in Kansas against GOP nominee Roger Marshall. (Tim Carpenter/Kansas Reflector)
Democrat Barbara Bollier (Tim Carpenter/Kansas Reflector)

The Kansas Reflector welcomes opinion pieces from writers who share our goal of widening the conversation about how public policies affect the day-to-day lives of people throughout our state. Leroy Towns is a former reporter for the Topeka Capital-Journal and Kansas Harris Newspapers, press secretary to Kansas Gov. Robert Bennett, chief of staff for U.S. Sen. Pat Roberts, and professor at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill.

Sometime in October of the 2020 elections, there it was, screaming from your message string or email inbox:

“3X MATCH EXPIRES AT MIDNIGHT.”

No, you weren’t hacked by a porn site; it was just another political message begging for funds.

Such appeals are not new, but in 2020, the breathless — and relentless — solicitations worked better than ever: of the estimated $14 billion spent on this election, small donors provided 22% of the money, up from 15% in 2016.

The messaging of candidates has switched from mass communication to targeted individuals and groups. That trend accelerated in 2020 as the pandemic shut down in-person events, as partisan intensity pushed voters to give money and as candidates and technology perfected direct appeals. The Democratic ActBlue has become a virtual money machine, followed by the upstart WinRed of the GOP.

You got on the call list any number of ways. Maybe you liked a candidate on social media. Maybe you gave money to a candidate or party. Previous donors are the plums of fundraising because they are most likely to give again. Once you give you never get off the lists, which are passed around among like-minded candidates.

It works because we have become a mobile phone society. Texting is cheap. People check their phones 96 times per day and messages via peer-to-peer services are actually read up to 98% of the time. Political emails get a response only 6% of the time, still raising big buckets of money.

Money is the sweet nectar that fuels American politics. Following the Supreme Court’s Citizens United and other opinions, the campaign finance system is a vast morass of unnamed donors (dark money), super PACs, nonprofits and wealthy individuals able to make huge contributions. These independent contributions often are the sources of negative advertising and they give a few individuals outsized influence. Making it worse is a dysfunctional Federal Election Commission, leaving little policing of the campaign finance system.

Reforms are sorely needed, including better oversight and transparency, but they remain stuck in congressional gridlock and polarization. Smaller contributions from individuals are a way to counter the influence of super PACs and wealthy donors.

The candidate who has the most money usually wins. Open Secrets estimates that in 2020 candidates who raised and spent the most money won 88% of the time.

But wait, didn’t a number of Democratic Senate candidates like Barbara Bollier in Kansas raise and spend more than their opponents only to lose? Bollier startled Kansas with record-breaking totals in October, sparking renewed talk she was on track to win.

As in every aspect of money and politics, it’s much more complicated than what you see on the surface. The Kansas race between Bollier and Republican Roger Marshall is a good example.

Bollier raised $28.5 million and spent $28.2 million. Marshall raised $6.6 million and spent $6.8 million. (Those are preliminary numbers subject to change until year-end FEC reports are filed in January. The figures include general and primary elections.)

Those figures are only the beginning. A whopping $25.6 million came into the race supporting and opposing Bollier from independent, or outside, groups and another $22 million supporting and opposing Marshall came from outside groups, according to Open Secrets. Those “outside” groups include super PACs and the dark money that has dominated campaign finance.

For example, the Senate Leadership Fund, GOP Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s super PAC, spent $15.6 against Bollier and $2 million supporting Marshall, according to Open Secrets. Duty and Country, a super PAC set up to support Bollier, spent $6.4 million against Marshall and Women Vote spent another $2.7 million against him.

In sum, Bollier and Marshall were more evenly matched in resources than lopsided contributions directly to their campaigns would suggest.

Without the individual contributions, however, the Kansas Senate race most likely would not have been competitive at all. Bollier raised $27 million in large (over $200) and small individual contributions. Marshall raised only $4 million.

And some elections have forces beyond funding or the control of individual candidates, as was the case in most 2020 U.S. Senate races.

One view of money in politics is that money is the root of all that is politically evil.

But another view is that when citizens get interested enough in politics to dig up a few dozen or a few hundred dollars, it means more people are participating in democracy.

That’s a result of — and in spite of — all those annoying messages begging for money.

Through its opinion section, the Kansas Reflector works to amplify the voices of people who are affected by public policies or excluded from public debate. Find information, including how to submit your own commentary, here.