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New York’s Top 200 Political Donors Outweigh Bottom 206,000

Last year, the state’s top 200 political donors shelled out nearly $16 million to statewide and legislative races while the 206,000 people who spent $250 or less gave a collective $13.5 million in donations.

(TNS) — The political influence of New York's wealthiest donors has been skyrocketing.

Last year, the state's 200 most prodigal benefactors supported candidates up and down the ballot, shelling out almost $16 million to statewide and legislative races. In comparison, the 206,000 people who spent $250 or less collectively gave $13.5 million in donations, according to an analysis of public data by OpenSecrets and the Brennan Center for Justice.

"It's surprising, but not shocking," said Ian Vandewalker, who works as senior council at the Brennan Center and collaborated on the research. "If one of those people picked up the phone and called the governor, or the speaker, or the Senate leader, they would probably get their call answered, as opposed to a regular voter."

The figures mean the average individual donor in that top 200 gave about $80,000 directly to candidates across races in 2022, well over the state's median annual household income. Some influencers gave much more.

This "resembles a broader trend nationwide," said the report, which was released Monday by Vandewalker and his co-authors Brendan Glavin and Michael Malbin.

"In 2022, donors fueled a record-breaking $16.7 billion in spending on state and federal elections, with the biggest donors consistently increasing their share since 2010," the report said.

New York politicians face limits on the amount they can raise through direct donations; following a 2010 U.S. Supreme Court decision, individuals and companies can spend unlimited funds to influence elections. As more money has poured into politics overall, such outside spending efforts have also gained prominence and started to look more similar to candidates' own campaigns.

In the last election cycle, New York allowed each donor to give tens of thousands to each candidate for a statewide race. But after Nov. 8, the upper limit was dropped to $18,000. Overall, the state's donors have largely been high earners: only 11 percent of all candidate funding analyzed for the new report came from small donors of $250 or less. Most, 69 percent, came from donors who gave $1,000 or more and groups that include political action committees, corporations, and unions.

Among the biggest donors this past year was Ronald Lauder, billionaire heir to the Estee Lauder cosmetics fortune.

But Lauder's donations didn't only go directly to political hopefuls. Once he hit the contribution cap for Republican gubernatorial candidate U.S. Rep. Lee Zeldin, Lauder began channeling funds into two outside spending groups that created their own campaigns in support of the candidate: Safe Together New York and Save Our State NY.

News of the cash influx, highlighted by Zeldin on the campaign trail, kicked off a parallel arms race to fund state-level super PACs before Election Day.

The tight race, which saw historic fundraising levels, also broke records for dollars spent as Zeldin, Gov. Kathy Hochul and the super PACs supporting them both raised and spent more than $105 million during the campaign cycle.

The authors of Monday's report are advocating for the state's new public financing program, which allows candidates to opt in and receive extra matching funds specifically for in-district small donations, especially signaling its potential in state Senate and Assembly races.

They calculated that if 2022 direct-to-candidate donation patterns were to be replicated, "small donors and public funds would become the biggest source of funds" in New York. They also said "the risk is small" that the program would be rendered obsolete by super PACs, which tend to focus on specific competitive races.

But the estimation that external spending from super PACs will be increasingly decisive in New York races is prevalent among state government analysts, including some who are also supportive of public financing.

In November, Reinvent Albany's John Kaehny said the increase in massive individual donations to outside spending groups was"a direct hit on the basic notions of democracy in New York. ... Consider how many super rich people there are in New York, or even nationally because there's no restriction on that, who could easily write a check for $20 million" to independently sway a competitive race.

While Zeldin did not win the gubernatorial election in New York, he made it one of the closest the state has seen in the last 100 years. His campaign coffer trailed Hochul's by about $28 million in direct donations, but super PAC spending on his behalf narrowed that imbalance, besting Hochul's by over $14 million.

Zeldin counted some of the biggest contributors among his supporters, but he also collected a larger share of dollars from small donors than his opponent: 17.9 percent of the campaign funds he controlled came from donors who gave $250 or less, compared to 1.1 percent for Hochul.

(c)2023 the Times Union (Albany, N.Y.) Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.
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