Life of the Parties
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Life of the Parties

Potomac gives $4.22 million to political candidates and parties.

Individual contributions to political candidates and parties will total $2.5 billion this year, $1 billion more than in the 2000 election cycle, according to the Center For Responsive Politics, which monitors political contributions.

A big chunk of that total is coming from Potomac. The $4.22 million raised in Potomac is tops among zip codes in Maryland, and twelfth in the nation. Maryland ranks No. 11 in the country in total donations. The Washington, D.C. area ranks second nationally after New York.

“People go where the money is and Montgomery County is one of those places,” said Paul Hernson, director of Center for American Politics and Citizenship at the University of Maryland.

“Candidates run two campaigns, he said, “one for votes and one for resources,” which includes money, allies and endorsements.

“When candidates campaign for money they go where the money is, that’s New York City; Beverly Hills; Austin, Tex. and the DC area,” Hernson said.

The dynamics in this area are distinct from other areas, Hernson says. “You also have a lot of people who have, for lack of a better term, Beltway fever,” he said. Fundraising is also different this year compared to past election cycles.

“Contributions from individuals are becoming more and more prominent in politics,” said Steven Weiss, communications director for Center for Responsive Politics. “Candidates are certainly going to raise more than they ever have before” this election cycle, which Weiss noted runs through the end of the year and not on Nov. 2. Donations will continue to come in throughout that time.

Political parties will likely equal their 2000 receipts, which Weiss said is remarkable since 2004 is the first election cycle influenced by the McCain Feingold Campaign Reform Act, which curtailed the formerly unregulated “soft money” contributions to the parties.

Individual contributions include everything from a few dollars up to the federally regulated maximum of $95,000 in a two-year election cycle, though only contributions of $250 or more are logged by the Federal Election Commission.

Big checks and little checks are equally critical to the candidates’ and parties’ success. “Political parties raise a lot of money from people giving the maximum. And they raise a lot of money from people giving $50 and $75,” Weiss said. “If they ignore one or the other they won’t be as effective in raising the money.”

The rules governing the contributions are complex — $25,000 is the cap on donations to a political committee, such as the Democratic or Republican National Committee, though an additional $25,000 could go to a different party group such as a Senatorial or House race committee, up to the $95,000 cap, with some restrictions. The cap for hard money contributions to a single candidate is $2,000, but the maximum contribution can be made for the primary and repeated for the general election.

Additional laws govern contributions to political action committees, and some experts say that there are still loopholes that allow essentially unlimited contributions in certain areas.

But if the laws governing individual contributions are becoming increasingly opaque, the contributions themselves are increasingly transparent. The Federal Election Commission releases data monthly that lists all individual contributors of $250 or more: name, address, and employment. Sites like the opensecrets.org (the Center for Responsive Politics site) and fundrace.org, compile and analyze that data.

The sites are useful both to the politically astute, who might want to know how 527 receipts in Wisconsin compared with those in Michigan, and to the merely nosy, who want to know how much the neighbors are giving. The blue and red maps, Democrat vs. Republican bar graphs, name search feature, and zip code breakdowns are plenty to keep both groups occupied.

No one is exempt. A quick search on opensecrets reveals that Bill Clinton gave $1,000 each dollars to Arkansas Sen. Mark Pryor and U.S. Rep. Michael Hathorn and Mike Ross in 2001. A search on fundrace.com shows that George H. W. Bush generously gave the full $2,000 to his son.

People give for different reasons.

“One reason is they want to further their material interest. They want to help their business or protect their business.  Issues that affect their pocketbook directly,” said Hernson.

“Another reason people give is for ideological reasons. They care about policy deeply.

“A third reason is people give because they enjoy the process. These are the folks that like to have their pictures taken with candidates. … They’re people that like to hobnob.”

None of the big money contributors called for this story wanted to be interviewed.

The money, it seems, speaks for itself.