Republicans mislead in welfare attack on Raphael Warnock

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A voting rights bill authored by Democrats includes a provision — to provide public financing of campaigns in some circumstances — that Republicans have derided as “welfare.”

After the For the People Act failed to proceed in the Senate, the National Republican Senatorial Committee launched an ad attacking Sen. Raphael Warnock, D-Ga., for supporting the legislation. (Warnock won his Senate seat in a special election this year and would be up for re-election in 2022.)

“He voted for welfare for politicians plan,” says the narrator. “Up to $25 million of government money for Warnock’s own political campaign.”

A slip of paper resembling a receipt includes the text “SR1” — the only clue that the ad refers to the For the People Act. 

The NRSC didn’t respond to our queries seeking evidence, but it looks like they are referring to a provision that provides public matching to small dollar donations to Senate campaigns. (There is a similar counterpart in the House legislation.) The law isn’t “welfare,” and the $25 million estimate is based on a maximum match.

For the People Act includes small dollar matching for campaigns

The For the People Act combines proposals for voter registration, absentee voting, in-person voting, campaign finance and ethics related to federal elections. The House passed the bill earlier this year. The Senate voted 50-50 along party lines on a motion to proceed on the bill June 22, falling short of the needed 60 votes to move ahead. Technically that was a procedural motion and not a vote on the bill itself, but it’s fair to call Warnock a supporter, because he is a co-sponsor of the previous version of the legislation.

Although the bill is dead for now, politicians in both parties are continuing to talk about voting laws in advance of the midterms. Democrats want federal legislation to expand voting rights, while Republicans have argued that state lawmakers are the best equipped to set election laws for their states.

One goal of the For the People Act is to reduce the power of big donors. The legislation includes a provision for small dollar financing of Senate election campaigns, which would provide a six-to-one match for each donation in aggregate under $200. For example, if a person donated $100 to a candidate, that would result in $600 in matching funds. The idea is to reduce the role of wealthy large donors in financing political campaigns.

Senate candidates who want to participate would opt in and have to meet certain criteria, such as not accepting other donations over $1,000.

The matching dollars would come from a new “Freedom From Influence Fund” — which would come from 4.75% surcharges on federal criminal offenses and settlements. If the amount in the fund comes up short, such matching dollars would be provided on a pro-rata basis. The legislation states: “No taxpayer funds may be deposited into the fund.”

The matching program would not start until 2028, which means that Warnock isn’t eligible to get any money from it for his 2022 election.

Experts on the bill or campaign finance didn’t generally object to the math. The legislation includes a formula and caps that would determine how much a Senate candidate could get in matching dollars. This amount varies state by state because it takes into account the state’s size based on how many congressional districts it has. 

The Brennan Center for Justice, a group that supports the legislation, did the math for Georgia and found it would add up to about $23.8 million — but if a candidate also got the enhanced matching funds, that would result in an extra $2.1 million, said Dan Weiner, deputy director of the Brennan Center’s Election Reform Program. But this includes the assumption that in 2028 the race would be competitive and that Warnock would raise the maximum amount. 

Warnock hasn’t said if he would participate in the public financing program. Warnock raised about $124 million for his 2020 campaign, about half from small donors. If such legislation passes in the future, his opponents could use it, too.

“Both Republicans and Democrats have developed robust networks of small dollar donors, and both parties could use the program to amplify the voices of those grassroots supporters,” said Brendan M. Fischer, director of the federal reform program at the Campaign Legal Center, an organization that supports the legislation.

Why it’s a distortion to call this ‘welfare’ for Warnock

The NRSC called the program “welfare” in the ad attacking Warnock, who is Black, but not in a similar ad against Sen. Maggie Hassan, D-N.H, who is white. 

Generally the term “welfare” is used to refer to government dollars given to low-income people to help them pay for rent, clothes, food or other basic living expenses. A small dollar matching program to encourage candidates to focus on donations from average Americans rather than millionaires isn’t comparable to welfare.

“I do not think the ‘welfare for politicians’ phrase is accurate,” said Michael Malbin, a University at Albany political scientist and expert on campaign finance. “This is a subsidy to enhance the value of small-dollar donors. It is not meant to, and would not, benefit politicians directly.”

The idea of small donor matching programs is not new — and it is not only for Democrats. 

Presidential candidates from both major parties used a presidential public financing program between 1976 and 2008 until it became outdated, said Fred Wertheimer, president of Democracy 21, an organization that promotes democracy. That includes former President Ronald Reagan, a Republican.

“If they are claiming this is welfare for politicians, they are claiming Reagan was a beneficiary of welfare for politicians, because he used the system run in 1976 when he lost and in 1980 and 1984 when he won,” Wertheimer said.

Wertheimer was involved in crafting the public financing law in the 1970s, as well as the provisions in the For the People Act.

For decades, multiple states have provided their own campaign public financing programs.

For example, Florida voters in 1998 approved a constitutional amendment for matching funds for statewide campaigns. In 2018, Republican Ron DeSantis, who won the governor’s race, received more than any other candidate in matching funds, nearly $3.23 million. His opponent, Democrat Andrew Gillum, received $2.62 million from the program.

Our ruling

The NRSC ad says Warnock “voted for welfare for politicians plan. Up to $25 million of government money for Warnock’s own political campaign.”

It’s inaccurate to call the public financing for political campaigns “welfare.” The goal of public campaign finance is to reduce the influence of rich donors and give more power to average Americans who want to donate to campaigns. That’s not comparable to “welfare” programs designed to help poor people with basic living expenses. Also, unlike programs associated with welfare, the public financing program would not come from tax dollars but surcharges on legal cases and settlements. 

The claim is also speculative. Warnock hasn’t said if he would choose to opt into the program, which wouldn’t go into effect until a 2028 campaign cycle. Warnock first has to win re-election in 2022 under existing campaign finance rules. 

We rate this statement False.

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