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Campaign Finance Reporting in Non-Election Year
By Karyn Dest

There is one major problem with writing an article about campaign finance reporting in non-election years: non-election years do not exist anymore.

The frequency of elections is not the only reason campaign finance stories are perpetually viable. The fight for reelection is a thought that never really leaves the politician's mind in this era of fundraising and campaign spending.

"As soon as members take office they have to start planning for their reelection, so donors cannot be ignored," says Sheila Krumholz, research director for the Center for Responsive Politics.

As politicians begin their fundraising efforts earlier and earlier, one could say election cycles seemingly have no end these days. Politicians are already raising money for the 2002 elections, and beyond. In May 2001, for example, only four months after inauguration, President George W. Bush was headlining a GOP fund raising dinner, expected to fetch $20 million for Republican coffers, even though current congressional and presidential terms have barely begun.

But, besides worrying about the money already being raised for 2002, 2004 and beyond, reporters have to ask, "What about the money politicians raised in the last election?" Donors may have given money a year ago, but for many politicians, it is now time to ante up, and it's the journalist's job to figure out who's "getting what from whom for what."

It's that kind of donor payback that occurs as legislatures convene and governors take their oaths of office. "At this point, the campaign finance data can become a lens through which legislative actions and bills can be viewed," says Edwin Bender, of the National Institute on Money in State Politics.

Using campaign finance data as a lens helps put lawmaking into perspective. For example, what kinds of legislation are politicians sponsoring? Why is a term-limited state representative sponsoring a lot of insurance industry-related legislation? Did he/she also receive a lot of contributions from the insurance industry while running for office? These are questions that cannot be fully answered in a database, but are useful in the years between election dates.

"Campaign finance data is very similar to Census information. It can be mined for stories for a long time if you use it as an entry point, not just as an end in itself," Bender says, "Labor always gives big to Democrats. Ask why?"

Asking questions like "Who is Labor?" or "Who is Big Business?" and "Why are they giving to Senator Smith" are especially relevant when state and national legislatures convene. Regulations - or the lack thereof - involving insurance industries, blood alcohol content standards and gubernatorial appointments are often influenced by so-called big money.

"Stories on money in politics, or stories that include the money angle, are arguably more important in the non-election year, because that's when the payback takes place," Krumholz says.

The paybacks are what make campaign finance reporting even more important when the election ends. Reporters do a great service to their readers, listeners and viewers in non-election years because, Krumholz says, "even if the real constituents are not paying attention, the 'cash constituents' are, and they will see that their agenda is well known to the [politician] and his/her staff."

I noticed the name of a traditionally-Republican family in our viewing area in fundraising databases for both Democrats and Republicans running against each other, going back several election cycles. After finding out one of the members of the family sat on the state's highway commission, I asked his cousin, a delegate to the Republican National Convention, why his family gave so much to Democrats, even though his family actively campaigned for Republican candidates. He responded, "We felt a need to put someone on the highway commission, and, therefore, [Democratic] Governor Carnahan was kind enough to appoint my cousin to that."

Donors, like the one in the story I reported, are often proud of how their money may have influenced politicians.

When the polls have closed and the inauguration ceremonies are finished, donors expect returns on their investments. For journalists, that's when some of the strongest campaign finance reporting begins.

Karyn Dest is a data analyst for the Campaign Finance Information Center.