Money and Congress

How does money shape politics? I am studying the long-term relationships between campaign donors and US senators to understand how the wealthy influence politics, and the causes of representational inequities.

Keena, Alex and Misty Knight-Finley. 2018. Governed by Experience: Political Careers and Party Loyalty in the Senate. Congress and the Presidency 45(1): 20-40. doi: 10.1080/07343469.2017.1401019


In this article, we study the U.S. Senate to understand how legislators' previous experiences in elected office influence their political behavior. We posit that, as a result of their experiences in office, former governors in the Senate are less partisan than their colleagues. We code the political jobs held by senators between 1983 and 2015 and analyze the effects of these careers on party loyalty in Senate floor votes. We find that gubernatorial service is associated with a 7–8% decrease in Party Unity. We test several hypotheses for the observed “governor effect” and find that, relative to their colleagues, former governors are supported by donor networks that are less ideologically extreme. We conclude that the unique experiences associated with serving as governor, along with the personalized nature of governors' electoral support coalitions, affect a senator's relationship with the party. Ultimately, our analysis illuminates how personal attributes, such as prior experience in elected office, can inform the study of legislative behavior.


Keena, Alex and Misty Knight-Finley. 2019. Are Small Donors Polarizing? A Longitudinal Study of the Senate. Election Law Journal (forthcoming). doi: 10.1089/elj.2018.0498


Current campaign finance law in the United States does little to redress biases in the donor population. One solution proposed by reformers is to expand the donor base to include a broader and more diverse subset of the population. Yet studies on the effects of “small” money in elections suggest that these reforms may polarize politicians. We conduct a longitudinal study of the effects of campaign finance on ideological sorting in the U.S. Senate in order to understand whether money from small donors causes ideological extremism or whether senators adopt polarizing positions as a strategy for raising money from small donors. The Senate provides a unique window into this question, because senators serve six-year terms and thus enjoy periods of time when they are not immediately accountable to their supporters. We find that a senator's receipts from small donors in previous elections have no effect on their future behavior. Rather, causality appears to flow from the politicians to the donors. Senators' voting behavior leading up to reelection has a significant effect on the money raised from small donors during the reelection at the end of the term. These results suggest that further polarization is not an inevitable consequence of campaign finance reforms that aim to improve equality in representation by expanding access to campaign contributions.