WASHINGTON — President-elect Barack Obama's rejection of public funds for his general election campaign set a precedent that may forever change how such races are financed and signal a decline in support for campaign finance reform efforts, political experts say.
"Those who've been able to get elected without public finances don't have much incentive to reform a system to give an advantage to people who do need public financing," said Massie Ritsch, a spokesman for the Center for Responsive Politics, a Washington group that analyzes money in politics. "That doesn't mean that's how the Obama administration is going to work, but if in 2012 he still feels like he can raise hundreds of millions of dollars, leveling the playing field may not be a priority."
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That trend tracks with McConnell's longtime opposition to campaign finance reform laws as a violation of the constitutional right to free speech. His own hotly contested race against Democratic challenger Bruce Lunsford, a wealthy Louisville businessman, was the most expensive in Kentucky history and, at more than $27 million, ranked No. 2 in 2008 behind the ongoing Minnesota contest as the nation's most expensive Senate race, according to an analysis by the Center for Responsive Politics.
As of Sept. 30, the most recent period for which figures are available, McConnell raised roughly $18 million to Lunsford's nearly $7.1 million, including $5.5 million of his own money. Both major parties, political action groups and others poured millions more into the spirited contest.
Political experts worry that the trend of increasingly expensive campaigns and opting out of public financing might discourage qualified candidates who can't raise large sums to run for public office and could lead to an increase in uncomfortable and, at times, unethical alliances between donors and candidates.
"Increasingly, a candidate's viability becomes defined by their ability to raise funds, not their record on the floor," said Donald Gross, a political science professor at the University of Kentucky.
In the presidential race, Obama enjoyed a tremendous fundraising advantage over Republican rival John McCain, bringing in $364 million for the fall campaign, according to Federal Election Commission records. The sum and Obama's fundraising methods, largely through individual campaign donations, is a stark departure from his earlier promise to limit himself to $84.1 million in federal funds.
By contrast, McCain spent more than $100 million in private donations over the summer but was limited to $84.1 million in public money beginning in early September. He sharply criticized Obama, who is the first presidential candidate to reject public financing for a general election campaign.
"It's clear Obama paid no cost for opting out of the system and gained a lot of benefit, and McCain paid a great cost and received no benefit," Gross said. "Obama may really believe in the public financing system, but the reality is when it came down to 'Do you believe it enough to finance your election?' the answer was no."
From Obama's substantial monetary advantage to congressional races across the nation, the candidate with the most money going into Election Day emerged victorious in nearly every contest.
Money played a critical role early on in the Kentucky race.
Democratic leadership, well aware of McConnell's record as a fundraising titan, considered Lunsford a well-heeled pick who could combat that advantage.
"(Rep.) Ben Chandler was their first choice, but people see Senator (Jim) Bunning as a riper target," said Jennifer Duffy, a senior editor at the non-partisan Cook Political Report. "Lunsford was number four or five. He brought some things to the table that were appealing. He ran statewide twice, he could write a check and fund his own campaign."
This summer, as the Kentucky Senate campaign was in full swing, the Supreme Court struck down a provision dubbed the "millionaire's amendment," designed to level the campaign-funding playing field while steering clear of restricting how much money a wealthy candidate could spend. By 5-4, the court ruled that Congress went too far when it loosened fundraising restraints for politicians facing millionaires who invest in their own campaigns.
McConnell, whose strident opposition to campaign finance reform legislation helped move the McCain-Feingold campaign reform legislation before the Supreme Court, praised the ruling.
Ironically, the ruling gave Lunsford the leeway to fund a stronger campaign against the senator. Though he initially filed papers with the FEC indicating that he didn't intend to spend his own money, Lunsford became the first Kentucky candidate ever to trigger the millionaire's amendment when he pumped more than $1 million of his own money into his Senate bid.
However, the millions poured into the Kentucky Senate race, which using the 2006 Census figures works out to about $6.41 for every man, woman and child in the state, may not have been necessary, Gross said.
"The money has become almost unnecessarily large," he said. "You're not going to convince either candidate of this, but if we cut down on the television commercials by 10 percent it wouldn't have made a difference."