One of the stories to emerge from the midterm elections is just how much mega donors shaped some of the highest profile races. For example, one man, cosmetics titan Ronald Lauder, was responsible for spending $11 million on behalf of Republican candidate for New York governor Lee Zeldin. 

Another rich New Yorker, James Dolan, owner of Madison Square Garden, spent millions on behalf of Democratic Gov. Kathy Hochul. 

The Albany Times Union dubbed this kind of spending “a political arms race."

Earlier this week, the Brennan Center released a report on mega-donors. Co-author Ian Vandewalker, senior counsel for the Brennan Center’s Democracy Program, joined Capital Tonight to discuss the issue.

“This midterm was the most expensive midterm ever across state and federal elections with something like $17 billion spent. And a large percentage of that came from mega donors,” Vandewalker said.

According to data from OpenSecrets, small donors — defined as people giving $200 or less — gave over $749 million to House and Senate candidates this cycle.

“This is a record high for the midterms, and it’s $138 million more than what small donors gave in 2018 and a staggering four times higher than in 2014,” the report concluded. 

It’s a significant number, but it pales in comparison to the amount of money the top 100 donors spent on behalf of politicians. 

“This year, the top 100 donors spent $1.2 billion altogether, which is about 60% more than all the small donors put together,” Vandewalker said.

That’s 3.7 million small donors being outspent by 100 individuals. 

Drilling down, in this year’s federal elections alone, just 21 families gave almost $800 million.  

Donations from both small and large donors have been on the rise since 2010, but the number and size of contributions from mega donors are now overshadowing other donations, something that’s changed from 12 years ago.  

The Brennan Center’s analysis shows that in 2010, small donors spent a quarter of a billion dollars on races, outspending mega donors. Twelve years later, spending by the top 100 mega donors are much higher.

The problem with this kind of spending by just a handful of very wealthy people, Vandewalker explained, is that’s its antithetical to democracy in which the majority is supposed to rule. 

“Obviously, this means those people get their phone calls returned in Washington and can control who’s going to run by where they decide they’re going to spend their money,” he said.

Vandewalker said the response to mega donations is to make small donations more important to more candidates. New York state lawmakers voted to do just that in 2020 by enacting a small donor public financing program. The Public Campaign Finance Program just launched last week. You can find more information here.