Dan Morain

Billionaires are running our elections. Is there no way out of this?

After discussing the failings of Obamacare, the importance of gun rights and the wisdom of locating the U.S. embassy in Jerusalem, the conversation turned, inevitably, to campaign money.

Dr. Yona Barash is a Republican surgeon who is challenging a fellow physician, Democratic incumbent Ami Bera, in the swing congressional district that runs from Bera’s home in Elk Grove to Folsom.


Barash was born in Romania 73 years ago, survived the Holocaust and fled with his parents from the Communist occupation in 1950 for refugee camps in Israel. He worked his way through medical school in Jerusalem, defended Israel in two wars, and emigrated to the U.S. in 1975, first to the Bronx, then Sacramento, and became a citizen in 1980.

Barash has lived the American dream but is not so well off that he could fund a campaign that easily could cost $15 million. So as our conversation at a Starbucks in Fair Oaks was ending, I asked whether he knew anyone who could help.

Las Vegas casino mogul and pro-Israel billionaire Sheldon Adelson, perhaps. No, Barash said, but he does know people who know Adelson’s wife, Miriam, a physician. The Adelsons and Barash undoubtedly would find common ground.

A congressional seat “shouldn’t go to the highest bidder,” said Barash, no fan of the campaign finance system. “It should go to the most qualified.” What a sweet notion. But that’s not the system in which he must run. So Barash, who must get past Republican Andrew Grant in June to make it to the runoff, will head to Vegas next week for the Republican Jewish Coalition convention. The board includes Adelson, and several other high-roller donors.

“I expect there would be interest. They try to elect Jewish Republicans,” Barash said. He’d be the first Israeli immigrant elected to Congress. “We looked into that.”

In the 2016 election cycle, the Adelsons spent $82.5 million to elect Republicans to Congress and the White House, second to Democratic billionaire Tom Steyer, who spent $91 million, the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics found.

In 2018, the cost of swaying your vote is sure to rise, as hundreds of candidates and their patrons fight for control of Congress, and find ways to further tarnish this democracy.

The other day, President Donald Trump offered a twist by soliciting a “special State of the Union contribution,” promising to post donors’ names on a crawl during his live stream of his State of the Union address. NASCAR, meet SOTU, not that politicians wear donors’ logos. Yet.

At the end of the year, when it became apparent that Congress would approve the massive corporate tax cut, billionaire oil baron Charles Koch and his wife, Elizabeth, contributed $970,000 to House Speaker Paul Ryan and the National Republican Campaign Committee. In Indian Wells this past weekend, the Koches and their network plotted to raise $400 million for the 2018 elections, all for Republicans.

From the left, Steyer promises to spend $30 million-plus to register and organize voters, hoping to elect candidates who would vote to impeach Trump. An end is not in sight.

The liberal American Legal Democracy Fund filed a complaint urging the Federal Election Commission to investigate whether Russian banker Alexander Torshin tried to help Trump win the presidency in 2016 by donating to the National Rifle Association, based on a report by McClatchy’s D.C. Bureau. The NRA spent $55 million in 2016 to elect Trump and congressional Republicans. Expect little.

The dysfunctional FEC has failed to enforce the federal law prohibiting foreign money in U.S. elections. And in 2011, a federal appeals court ruled that while foreign nationals cannot spend on campaigns, the law “does not restrain foreign nationals from speaking out about issues or spending money to advocate their views about issues.” Torshin is an NRA member.

What’s a citizen of our great republic to do? Rep. John Sarbanes, a Maryland Democrat, has enlisted 159 members of Congress to sign onto H.R. 20, legislation intended to encourage candidates to raise small donations. Inducements include tax credits for donors and, for candidates, a federal match and access to broadcast time.

Sure, 158 co-sponsors are Democrats. The bill is part of the Democrats’ “By The People Project,” a contract with America for the 2018 election. But one Republican openly supports H.R. 20, Rep. Walter Jones of North Carolina. “It is time to return power to the people and get big money out of politics,” he says.

Sarbanes’ idea and other fixes won’t stop big donors and corporations, so long as the 2010 Supreme Court decision in Citizens United and other related decisions remain the law. Maybe if Democrats retake Congress and the White House, Sarbanes’ concept will become a reality. It’d be an improvement.

“We can’t stop the Koch brothers, but we can arm good candidates so that they can run an efficient campaign,” Sarbanes said by phone.

And then one day, the progressive state of California will devise a way to increase reliance on small donors, not the rich people and corporate donors who dominate. Such a nice concept.