The importance of political spending is overblown

Cash. Money. Scratch. Moo-lah.

Whatever you want to call it, it is in the political news. Much has been made of former Vice President Joe Biden’s poor showings in Iowa and New Hampshire. It has had a second-order effect; his fundraising is drying up.

This isn’t fatal for the former vice president. The role of campaign cash is often overstated in politics. Once you have “enough,” the marginal value of an additional dollar drops quickly. Other factors come into play. There are plenty of high-priced campaigns that have failed spectacularly. We are watching one unfold now in the Democratic primary, with hedge fund maven Tom Steyer spending in excess of $200 million for fairly dismal results.

Democratic presidential candidate businessman Tom Steyer speaks in Manchester, New Hampshire, on Feb. 8. He’s spent a lot of money but had a poor showing in the primaries so far. (AP Photo/Mary Altaffer)

The so-called “money race” is being waged here in Maine as well. Democratic State House Speaker Sara Gideon earned headlines in her race to replace Sen. Susan Collins. Gideon out-raised Collins over the last two quarters of 2019.

But, like everything, the devil is in the details. Gideon may have raised over $7.5 million through the start of 2020, but had just under $2.8 million left in the bank. In other words, she has already spent about 63 cents of every dollar she has received. Collins, reflecting her more frugal Aroostook roots, is almost the exact opposite; she still has about 67 cents of every dollar on hand.

Both Collins and Gideon have “enough” to wage a campaign for the U.S. Senate. Yet Gideon will first need to best her Democratic primary opponents, including former gubernatorial candidate Betsy Sweet and Bre Kidman, who uses a guillotine as a campaign logo. Assuming the House Speaker is successful, then the contest will be fought on grounds other than fundraising. Like finance.

Republicans have, over the past year, lambasted Democratic State House majorities — and Gov. Janet Mills — for increasing the state’s budget by nearly 11%. More and more dollars have been deployed, yet core government functions — like transportation — are under-resourced.

Gideon will undoubtedly be attacked for this record. Expect lots of quick-cutting commercials showing cars hitting potholes, families looking stressed over what appear to be car repair bills, and short text blurbs pointing out some seemingly silly spending.

The approach will have special meaning this year. Over the past 10 years, the U.S. national debt has nearly doubled. And, even if President Donald Trump’s proposed 2021 budget was enacted outright and optimistic economic assumptions are all accurate, that number will keep growing for the next 15 years.

It is the biggest issue that not enough people are talking about. Democrats will blast out their only glossy commercials blaming Collins for growing the debt, couching their argument in talking points about tax cuts mixed with plenty of bad-sounding buzzwords.

Again, it will be somewhat effective. “National debt = bad” is a pretty simple political argument, Collins has voted to reduce tax rates, and spending has outpaced revenues.

However, if Democrats want to make that argument, then they need to take the next logical step. Nearly all credible analyses of the deficit recognize that some type of changes to our entitlement programs are necessary to bend the cost curve. Medicare and Social Security account for more than 60% of federal spending, more than triple defense spending.

That is going to be the challenge as we move towards November. Democratic presidential campaigns seem to have a continual game of one-upmanship ongoing with new spending proposals. Trump hasn’t tried to tackle the debt, nor given any indication he really wants to.

But in Maine, political messaging gurus will try to appeal to our Yankee frugality. Gideon will be labeled a big spender, Collins an irresponsible tax cutter. If these two women are our choices, then probably we will need to judge them on how they manage their own funds.

They’ve both proven they can raise it. Who can spend it more wisely?

Michael Cianchette

About Michael Cianchette

Michael Cianchette was the chief counsel to Gov. Paul LePage from 2012-2013 and deputy counsel from 2011-2012. A Navy reservist, he was deployed to Afghanistan from 2013-2014 as a trainer and adviser to the Afghan National Police. He is an alumnus of the Leadership Maine program and holds a BA in economics and political science from Boston College along with a JD and an MBA from Suffolk University. He works as in-house counsel and financial manager for a number of affiliated companies in southern Maine.