Luke Wachob is a senior policy analyst at the Institute for Free Speech.
Last week, Virginia became the first state in the nation to elect an openly transgender state legislator. Democrat Danica Roem defeated Republican Robert G. Marshall, a longtime delegate who once called himself Virginia’s “chief homophobe” and introduced a bill to regulate the use of bathrooms.
Roem’s victory shows just how fast things can change in politics. But it also makes a broader point about political campaign rules: Strict regulations of campaign contributions do not necessarily make political systems more equal or more diverse.
Roem outraised Marshall 3-to-1 thanks in part to large donations from lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender advocates across the country. This was possible because Virginia is one of just a handful of states that impose no limits on who can contribute, or how much, to a political candidate.
Conventional wisdom suggests that “money in politics” is a rich man’s game, but the wealthiest always find a way around regulations to make an impact. It’s the grass roots — the outsiders most unfamiliar with politics — that suffer from complicated campaign-finance laws.
If new political movements are to gain traction, states need to make it easy for candidates to organize, raise funds and speak to voters. The harder it is to campaign, the more the advantages shift to incumbents and well-connected political operatives.
Roem’s success shows how outsiders can benefit from a lighter touch. Chris Abele, the county executive in Milwaukee and chair of the Gay & Lesbian Victory Fund, personally contributed $190,000 to Roem’s campaign. In fact, Roem said Abele gave her one $50,000 check in response to President Trump’s announcement banning transgender individuals from serving in the military. In all but 11 states, Abele’s political expression would have exceeded contribution limits and been prohibited by law.
More than half of the states limit contributions to state legislative candidates to $5,000 or less per election cycle. For Roem, similar restrictions in Virginia would have meant saying goodbye to more than $500,000 in five- and six-figure contributions to her campaign, or almost two-thirds of her total fundraising haul. Roem raised $779,289 in total, the Virginia Public Access Project reported.
In neighboring Kentucky or West Virginia, for instance, with limits that would have left her with a fraction of what she raised in Virginia, it’s far from clear that Roem would have been able to prevail. Just as in other industries, financial support can be just what an outsider needs to kick-start campaigns. Passionate believers in an idea or product — such as an angel investor in finance, a wealthy patron of the arts or an early adopter in tech — are essential to bringing new ideas to the mainstream. So, too, in politics.
And just as in other fields, early investment doesn’t guarantee success at the polls. Candidates bring their ideas to the voters, who either approve or reject them. That is why fears about large donors exerting undue influence on politics are mostly overblown.
You can’t sell what people aren’t buying — just ask Jeb Bush. Regardless of where a candidate’s money comes from — in-state, out of state or both — local voters have the final say.
Marshall’s constituents preferred Roem. That’s democracy.
Too often we get impatient with democracy and try to change the rules of the game to engineer the outcomes we want. We should reject such pessimism. Who would have expected someone such as Danica Roem to win under Virginia’s rules? Without extensive regulation of the political process, many argue, government is doomed to be dominated by the economically powerful — typically understood as old, white men.
Good news: Reality is not so bleak. Virginia’s freedom for candidates and donors allowed Roem to harness the power of the national LGBT movement. As the Old Dominion welcomes its new delegate, maybe other states should consider adopting its methods.
Let the candidates campaign. Let the donors donate. Let the voters vote. Simple as that.