What could we do with $165 million in campaign contributions?

As of Sept. 30, the total amount raised by federal campaigns in Kentucky and Indiana is about $165 million. This does not include state and local races, just U.S. House and Senate. Of course, a big chunk of that — $140 million — is owed to the Senate race between the Democratic National Committee’s Fighter Pilot Prototype Android and The Most Evil Man in the World. The second-most expensive race, if you’re wondering, is for the Lexington-area U.S. House seat; the incumbent Republican has raised about $4 million, and the Democratic challenger is sitting at about $2.5 million. Following closely behind that race is Indiana’s highly competitive 5th Congressional District, where Democratic powerhouse Christina Hale has outraised her opponent by a substantial margin in a Republican stronghold. (Hale is a great candidate, but it doesn’t hurt that her soon-to-be constituents are suburbanites who are sick of the GOP’s shit and that her opponent is an anti-government nut who believes Hoosiers should conceal carry in kindergarten.) They sit at a combined total of $5.5 million.

Gosh, that’s a lot of money.

In fact, I hear that McConnell raised another $50 million in the first two weeks of October, bringing our total closer to the $200 million range. And that’s just for federal races in two relatively poor states. Total campaign spending is expected to reach about $11 billion nationwide by Nov. 3. This number has skyrocketed in the era of you-know-who; spending this cycle is about 37% higher than in 2016.

Seems like all that cash could be put to better use than littering the Earth with mailers that go straight in the trash, or hours of god-awful, jingoistic commercials. It’s no wonder most candidates have to rely on people who won’t notice a few thousand bucks missing. The return on investment for campaign donations to a losing candidate is basically zero. You don’t get to write it off or anything, the money’s just… gone.

What do you get if your candidate doesn’t win?

Maybe some decent messaging. Maybe some minds changed for the next election. Maybe an investment in a politician who’s willing to try it again. But mostly: nothing.

For perspective’s sake, $11 billion is a little less than 2% of total U.S. military spending this year. If you kept it all, you wouldn’t even be one of the 100 richest people on the planet. But still, it’s not a bad chunk of change. You could probably use it to wipe out hunger in the U.S. for a little while. You could take eight people to Mars. You could buy the Dallas Cowboys and the New York Knicks, and still have enough left to buy the Marlins. You could get all the most expensive paintings ever sold, buy Buckingham Palace to hang them in and hire a secret police force to make sure no one steals them.

You get the idea.

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Talking about billions of dollars becomes absurd pretty quick. It’s far easier to imagine sensible ways to use the modest sum of $165 million raised here in the heartland. For example, while you couldn’t wipe out hunger for that amount, you could buy more than 27 million Red Baron Classic Crust frozen pizzas — that’s seven pizzas for every family in Indiana and Kentucky. Not too shabby. I asked readers to come up with other suggestions for how that money could be put to better use. The results reinforce a conclusion that anyone who’s spent more than a month in the United States should have reached: Americans are pretty good policymakers as individuals, but for some reason, we suck at working together to solve problems.

One common answer was to put the money into education. According to readers, you could fund about 10 rural school districts entirely, fully fund college tuition and fees for over 3,000 students, or give every public schoolteacher in both states a $1,500 bonus.

Healthcare also came up a lot. The cost of a COVID-19 test differs so widely that for $165 million you could get as many as 8 million test kits (one for everyone in Indiana), or as few as 200,000 (almost one for every American who died of coronavirus thus far, or for the population of Des Moines, Iowa). Margaret suggested that money “would be better spent on mental health screening for all federal candidates, especially anyone running for president.” And Erica points out that the money could pay for 4,125 gender confirmation surgeries.

Dion, a pragmatist, would invest the whole wad. Boring as hell, but “with an APR of just 2%, that’s $3.3 million a year going to charity.” Speaking of charity, Sue points out that $165 million could pay off Jeff Bezos’ new house. Diehard Hoosier David, on the other hand, wants “a basketball in every yard.” It looks like we could make that happen for both states, but only if we get bulk rate.

A lot of people said that the money should be spent on campaign finance reform. A fine idea, but not so easy to pull off. Eugene Mazo, a law professor at the UofL and editor of the book “Democracy by the People: Reforming Campaign Finance in America,” said: “In recent years, the Supreme Court has issued a number of controversial campaign finance decisions that have wrongly equated money with speech and treated corporations as if they were citizens. Declaring this to be our Constitution’s view of democracy, the Supreme Court has given corporate titans the green light to influence American elections, enabled the rise of Super PACs and ‘dark money groups’ in our politics, and legalized the abuses most Americans deplore.”

There is, of course, a better way to go about funding elections. Mazo said: “Other countries have much more sensible campaign finance laws. Take Canada. While our Supreme Court deems money to be ‘speech’ and routinely strikes down campaign finance regulations for violating the First Amendment, Canadian courts uphold the same restrictions. That is because Canadians champion equality over liberty. Many European countries do the same.”

As Mazo put it, “if the United States is now governed by an increasingly influential class of plutocrats, we have our campaign finance system to blame.” And in our jacked-up version of reality, with an enabling Supreme Court and a Congress that can’t approve basic relief packages for a global pandemic, it’s safe to say that no big changes are coming anytime soon. Until then, the only way to reshape democracy is click those donate links, cross your fingers, and try to not to think about what you could have spent the money on.

Dan Canon is a civil rights lawyer and law professor. “Midwesticism”is his short-documentary series about Midwesterners who are making the world a better place. Watch it at: patreon.com/dancanon.

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