In his unsuccessful bid to wrest the GOP nomination for the 11th Congressional District seat from incumbent Lloyd Smucker, Manheim-area businessman Chet Beiler invested $345,000 in his primary campaign, LNP staff writer Sam Janesch reported last week. When the two ran against each other in the 2016 primary, Smucker spent $400,000 of his own money, while Beiler spent $634,000. Beiler lost to Smucker by 17 percentage points in Tuesday’s primary.
For Smucker, it doesn’t seem like a bad investment: hundreds of thousands of dollars to win a seat in Congress in a markedly Republican district.
He didn’t spend that much more than what a medical student spends to become a doctor — and both can look forward to the prospect of having jobs for life (a prospect, obviously, that Democrat Jess King hopes to spoil for Smucker in November, though it’s a long shot).
But Beiler has spent nearly $1 million in pursuit of a job that has eluded him.
And we’re left wondering: Who has that kind of money to spare? And is it a good idea for politics to be the preserve of the independently wealthy?
While the latter isn’t anything new — presidents from George Washington to John F. Kennedy to Donald Trump fit into that category — it’s nevertheless unsettling.
Consider Laura Ellsworth, the Pittsburgh attorney who lost her bid for the GOP gubernatorial nomination Tuesday. She was an impressive candidate — principled, innovative, quick-witted, a leader in Pittsburgh’s economic renaissance. She also had far less cash than her opponents, Paul Mango and state Sen. Scott Wagner, both of whom spent millions of their own money on their campaigns.
Her first TV ad aired just 13 days before the primary, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reported. That was very late to introduce herself to voters, who by then had seen months of Wagner and Mango commercials in which the two candidates trashed each other with abandon.
Ellsworth expressed the hope that the gubernatorial nomination wasn’t up for sale.
But Wagner, who has made a fortune in the trash-hauling business, hauled in the GOP nod.
Maybe he was just a better campaigner. Maybe voters warmed to his tough persona and Trump-style plain talk. But his money surely didn’t hurt. And in spending it, he had an example in the incumbent he’s now seeking to unseat: Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf, who spent millions of his own money on TV ads in 2014.
The problem we see in self-funding campaigns is that they elevate candidates who come from rarefied circumstances — who don’t understand the struggle to put food on the dinner table, who don’t know what it’s like to sweat out a school property tax bill.
It’s true that well-to-do politicians may not desire or need gifts from special interests. (Wolf, for instance, wants to see a gift ban imposed on state officials.) And the late Gov. William Scranton and the late U.S. Sen. John Heinz, both wealthy Republicans, are revered in Pennsylvania for the work they did in public office.
We also realize that President Franklin Delano Roosevelt was rich, and he created the New Deal. But for every FDR there are a thousand other out-of-touch politicians for whom hardship is missing dinner reservations because meetings run late.
Moreover, when we elect affluent businessmen to public office, there can be potential conflicts of interest, particularly when they don’t divest their businesses.
The good news is that crowdfunding — that is, soliciting small donations from a great many people — may be leveling the playing field, especially for female candidates for whom traditional sources of funding (political parties, political action committees, etc.) remain less open.
According to The Story Exchange, a website for female entrepreneurs, women represent 35 percent of the candidates who have used the crowdfunding platform Crowdpac since it was founded in 2014 by tech entrepreneurs.
The “roughly one-third slice” of candidates served by that platform in 2016 “may sound modest, given women are 51 percent of the U.S. population,” The Story Exchange noted. “But women are hugely underrepresented in American politics, holding only 20 percent of seats in U.S. Congress and 25 percent in state legislatures.”
That looks to change, at least modestly, this year. Eight women won their congressional primary elections last week in Pennsylvania — including Lancaster’s King, who was unopposed.
And there is more reassuring news: According to the watchdog website opensecrets.org, self-funders often lose.
“The main reason is they tend to be extremely inexperienced in politics,” Jennifer Steen, associate research professor of political science at Arizona State University, told that website.
Nationwide in 2016, five self-funding candidates won seats in the U.S. House of Representatives, and one won the Oval Office. But opensecrets.org said they had faced just a 12.5 percent chance of winning a federal race with a self-funded campaign — the same odds you’d get when “you flip a coin, and it lands heads up. You flip it again, and it’s heads a second time. You toss it once more ... and it’s heads for the third time in a row.”
Here’s hoping that winning political office by funding your own campaign remains a long shot.
Yet another school shooting
Ten people, mostly students, were killed in Friday’s mass shooting at Santa Fe High School in Texas, and another 10 were wounded.
We are weary of politicians so afraid of losing their cherished National Rifle Association A-ratings that they cannot pass even basic gun regulation like expanded background checks. And we are angry that children’s lives are being sacrificed so that gun manufacturers can sell weapons that don’t merely shoot but shatter human organs and decimate human muscle and flesh.
Yes, we understand the Second Amendment. No, we don’t want all guns to be taken away from Americans.
But we don’t see what would be so awful about insisting that a person be 21 before he’s allowed to buy an AR-15 rifle or a handgun.
But we don’t see what would be so awful about insisting that a person be 21 before he’s allowed to buy an AR-15 rifle or a handgun. Or about requiring that guns be locked away from troubled teens, even older teens.
Officials said Friday that the Santa Fe High School shooter used a .38-caliber revolver and a shotgun that belonged to his father. But for most mass shooters, including the one at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Florida, the AR-15 is the weapon of choice.
According to the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry, the actions of adolescents are “guided more by the emotional and reactive amygdala and less by the thoughtful, logical frontal cortex.”
Based on the stage of their brain development, teenagers are more likely to: “act on impulse, misread or misinterpret social cues and emotions,” and “engage in dangerous or risky behavior,” and less likely to “pause to consider the consequences of their actions (and) change their dangerous or inappropriate behaviors,” the academy says.
It is true that an 18-year-old in the military may be assigned a semi-automatic weapon, but he’ll be supervised by his superiors.
It’s also true that an 18-year-old is permitted to vote. But his vote isn’t going to kill 10 people at his high school.