Are elections for sale? Can a candidate simply write a big enough check to buy a seat at the proverbial table? Is public office truly about serving the public, or has it become more about serving special interests?
These are the questions being asked this election cycle, as over one third of the State Legislature candidates face competitive races and records are being broken for campaign spending.
State House District 24, in Northern Galveston County, features one of the most heated races in the state. Ryan Sitton, founder and President of an engineering and technology firm, and Greg Bonnen, a local doctor, will face one another in a runoff on July 31. This election has received national attention, with the New York Times reporting in June that the Bonnen campaign had spent one of the highest amounts (per vote) on record.
Bonnen, Sitton, and Tea Party favorite Heidi Thiess were the three candidates on the May 29 Republican primary ballot. Campaign finance reports indicate that Thiess spent $22,471 leading up to the primary, Sitton spent $152,444, and Bonnen spent a whopping $658,525. However, dollars did not translate to votes. Bonnen netted 45% of the vote, Sitton 33%, and Thiess, 22%.
Voters Question Bonnen Motives
Concerns have been raised over Bonnen’s intentions. Bonnen voted as a Democrat (in the Democratic Primary) as recently as 2002. This fact has brought added scrutiny to the large amount of spending by Bonnen’s campaign, and the nature in which it was spent.
After paying over $100,000 for TV commercials and nearly $200,000 for consultant and staff fees, his campaign established a PAC – Texans for Conservative Government – with the sole purpose of attacking Sitton.
In addition, the Bonnen campaign paid two different local elected officials, Commissioner Ken Clark and Constable Jimmy Fullen, to support him in his race. This practice does not sit well with many voters, including the strong conservative base that pays close attention to Galveston County politics.
The Impact of Money
Bonnen received almost $200,000 from lobbyists and special interest groups, which many attribute to the fact that his brother, Dennis Bonnen, currently serves as a State Representative in neighboring Brazoria County, and chairs the powerful Sunset Advisory Committee.
Across the State, the large amounts of personal and lobbyist money being invested in races is raising concerns over who those elected officials actually represent—the special interests or the voters.
Sitton commented that, “Our current government infringes too much on our personal choices and freedoms. When candidates are beholden to money sources rather than voters, this dynamic only gets worse.”
Sitton stressed the fact that nearly all of his campaign donations came from individual voters. “I am very proud of the fact that I received most of my support by going door to door, personally knocking on nearly 9,000 doors across the district,” he said. “There were times when I was out for ten hours a day, seven days a week, meeting voters. I think that those connections led to our success.”
Tea Party to Impact Outcome
The Tea Party has continued to stay involved in the bid to represent District 24, with former candidate Thiess recently endorsing Sitton.
“The Tea Party represents the core ideals of limited, constitutional government, free enterprise, and defense of liberty,” Thiess said. “Ryan believes in these principles and will uphold them. My vote goes to Ryan because his integrity and dedication to serving the people—not lobbyists and special interests in Austin—make him the best choice to represent the residents of District 24.”
With this endorsement, and 22% of the primary voters who voted for Thiess potentially within his reach, Sitton appears to be in a strong position to win in the runoff, even while spending only one quarter of the money spent by the Bonnen campaign. Perhaps Sitton’s hard work and grassroots support will trump the lobbyist money and electioneering tactics that have become so commonplace.
A recent CNN poll revealed that Americans overwhelmingly believe that money is the number one factor—above integrity, issues, policies, and quality of the candidate—in determining election outcomes. While time will tell if the voters have grown tired of the status quo, one thing is certain. People are more aware than ever of attempts to buy elected seats. This, in itself, is a step in the right direction.