Everyone likes to back a winner. So it should come as no surprise that most political donations from special interests go to incumbents.
That wouldn't be a problem except for two things. First, as a Salt Lake Tribune report shows, so much donor money goes to incumbents that most Utah legislative races are uncompetitive. The people currently in office generally outraise challengers by a ratio of 5-1. Two-thirds of that money comes from corporations, political action committees and lobbyists.
Second, that process makes lawmakers beholden to the special-interest donors who paid for their re-election. Legislators can claim that they are not influenced by campaign donations, but it is a fundamental truth of human nature that a person feels obligated to someone who gives a gift. Legislators who claim otherwise are only deceiving themselves.
What can be done?
The answer begins with the fact that Utah has no laws governing how much a person, corporation or labor union can give to a candidate for state office. Limits on the size of an individual contribution could at least force candidates to raise funds from more sources. Because the typical incumbent in legislative races receives about $14,000 in donations, perhaps $500 or even $250 would be a logical ceiling on donations from a single source. The typical challenger raises about $3,200.
That kind of limit would dilute the influence of any single donor. It also might help to rein in the fundraising of powerful legislators in leadership positions, who accumulate tens of thousands of dollars and then donate that money to other candidates, buying loyalty from other legislators in the process.
Utah's Legislature has refused repeatedly to enact any limits on campaign contributions, so it undoubtedly is wishful thinking even to bring up the issue of public funding of campaigns. Nevertheless, if public financing were enacted and private donations were banned, that would put an end to special interests buying influence. Unfortunately, because the U.S. Supreme Court has equated private spending in elections with free speech, most recently in the Citizens United case, any system to provide public financing of elections would be weakened by the ability of people with means to simply buy their own campaign messages independent of the candidates.
It never will be possible to eliminate the influence of special interests. But by enacting donation limits, Utah could reduce the portion of a candidate that a donor could buy.