Sarbanes models a different kind of election focused on small donors

Rep. Sarbanes proposes a 6-to1 match for political donations under $150.

Like most candidates running for re-election, Rep. John Sarbanes has spent much of his time recently at fundraisers, pressing the flesh in pursuit of campaign cash.

But donors who show up to meet the Baltimore County Democrat quickly learn he is not there to pitch his own candidacy. And he's not asking for a $5,000 check.

Sarbanes would prefer $50, or even $5.

As candidates across the country engage in another mind-bogglingly expensive election — one estimate has put the cost of the midterms at nearly $4 billion — Sarbanes has been using his own campaign to test a proposal he believes would shift the emphasis from big money to small-dollar donors.

The four-term congressman has written legislation to create a public matching fund for donations up to $150. The idea is to steer campaign finance reform away from past attempts to limit large donations, since that path has been blocked repeatedly by the Supreme Court, and toward incentivizing small contributions from everyday voters.

"There is a deep cynicism developing," Sarbanes told two dozen people who gathered at a Canton restaurant last week to hear his pitch. "If we live in a world where money is speech, then the question is 'How do people of modest means have speech?'"

The legislation, the Government by the People Act, would offer the prospect of a 6-to-1 match for small donations that would kick in once a candidate raised $50,000 in small contributions from 1,000 people. That means a $50 check would be worth $350.

The money would come from a public fund. Sarbanes estimates it would require several hundred million dollars in taxpayer money each election.

Political donors, meanwhile, would get a tax break of up to $50 in an election cycle.

Sarbanes is realistic about the idea's slim chances in Congress. But he notes that similar systems have been created in Connecticut and New York City. In Maryland, Montgomery County recently approved a small-donor matching fund that will be in place in time for the 2018 election.

The tax credit, meanwhile, has enjoyed bipartisan support. Donors to campaigns were able to claim a credit on their income taxes from 1972 until Congress re-wrote the tax code in 1986. Rep. Tom Petri, a Wisconsin Republican, has proposed a similar break for years.

Groups that advocate for changes to the campaign system say ideas that seem impossible can sometimes gain momentum unexpectedly. The last successful revision of campaign finance law, the McCain-Feingold Act, followed a series of scandals in the 1996 election involving foreign donations to Democrats.

"As with most reforms, it often takes a scandal to catalyze change," said Aaron Scherb, director of legislative affairs with Common Cause. "We think it's just a matter of time for a smoking gun to appear that will spur on the reform."

Sarbanes has 159 sponsors. All but one — Rep. Walter B. Jones Jr., of North Carolina — are Democrats.

Sarbanes' "road test" this year of the legislation — he aimed for small donors in his own re-election campaign — might demonstrate one challenge in convincing other lawmakers to get on board.

The campaign said it reached the 1,000-donor benchmark on Friday — cutting it close to Tuesday's election.

Sarbanes also set a goal this election of raising $1,000 in small donations from 100 communities in his district. The congressman said he did not meet that target. His campaign declined to provide details.

Sarbanes said that his proposed tax credit would incentivize donors to give, making it easier to hit the benchmarks.

And it's also the case that more competitive races draw more donors at all levels of giving. Sarbanes, who is running against Republican Charles A. Long in a heavily Democratic district, is widely expected to win a fifth term.

Critics question whether the proposal would result in the kind of transformative change in Washington that Sarbanes envisions, with candidates choosing to raise money from their voters instead of lobbyists.

The skeptics include Bradley A. Smith, the Republican former chairman of the Federal Election Commission.

"I'll tell you who raises money from small donors: Sarah Palin, Alan Grayson — the more polarizing candidates," Smith said. "There's not much reason to think that this is going to get you anywhere."

Smith is the co-founder of the Northern Virginia-based Center for Competitive Politics, a group that opposes many campaign finance regulations.

With control of the Senate at stake, Tuesday's midterm elections are expected to be slightly more expensive than those of 2010, according to an analysis by the Center for Responsive Politics, based in Washington.

House incumbents have raised an average of $1.5 million and senators have raised an average of $9.3 million, according to the group. More than 400 outside groups have spent $497 million.

Sarbanes' focus on small donors has elevated his profile and given him the kind of voice he hasn't had so far in the House. His idea has been embraced and promoted by House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi, and he has received significant attention from national media.

Sarbanes also seems to be thoroughly enjoying the effort, even if it is an uphill fight. At the Canton fundraiser, the son of longtime Sen. Paul S. Sarbanes spoke about his vision without notes for 20 minutes — and barely mentioned his own re-election. He joked that he's had to turn away donors who believed in his idea so much that they immediately offered to cut him a big check.

"When you're running an idea campaign, Election Day is when you bring your idea to the floor of House of Representatives for a vote," Sarbanes told the group. "We don't know when our Election Day is going to happen, but we want to be ready for it."

john.fritze@baltsun.com

twitter.com/jfritze

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