I’m not a big TV watcher but I became even less of one during this election cycle. The political advertising – local and national – was a 24-hour frontal assault.
I was mad as heck every time one of the ads appeared, and the U.S. Supreme Court was the focus of a lot of my ire. The nearly nonstop barrage was enabled by the justices’ 5-4 decision known as Citizens United – a decision that freed corporations and unions to spend unlimited amounts of money on political campaigns and opened the door for individuals to pool their money into independent groups in unlimited sums, the so-called super PACs.
The court majority’s rationalization that such unlimited corporate and individual spending don’t “give rise to corruption or the appearance of corruption” notwithstanding, much of the hundreds of millions dumped into campaigns this year was influence-peddling and efforts to push out or in specific candidates to carry water for their agendas.
Suffice it to say that the boatloads of cash collectively spent by several conservative super PACs and deep-pocketed billionaire donors like Sheldon Adelson and the Koch brothers didn’t reap the hoped-for result in the top national race. Barack Obama was re-elected president.
That didn’t seem to bother Tim Phillips, president of the Koch brothers-backed group, Americans for Prosperity: “It’s never about one year or one election; it genuinely is about bringing the public to our view.”
The impact of PAC money this year was still evident.
Liberal super PACs backing Obama including Priorities USA Action, clearly scored a win. But liberal spending couldn’t match conservatives’. Priorities USA came in a distant third to the two top super PACs this cycle, Restore Our Future and Karl Rove’s American Crossroads.
The biggest single spender was Adelson, who reportedly spent more than $53 million on super PACs backing Romney and some Senate and House races. As of Wednesday, reports the Center for Responsive Politics, 1,115 groups organized as super PACs had reported total receipts of $661,460,193 and total independent expenditures of $631,375,766 this election cycle. In all, outside groups reported spending $1.03 billion on media and other forms of voter outreach – more than three times the amount they spent in 2008, according to the nonpartisan research group.
The impact of money was more clearly felt below the national level. In North Carolina, PACs spent at least $13.8 million on races in the state, according to the Institute for Southern Studies’ new FollowNCMoney.org website. An astonishing $1.9 million of it was spent by the conservative North Carolina Judicial Coalition in support of Supreme Court Justice Paul Newby, who had once trailed in polling against Judge Sam Ervin but won on Tuesday.
As of last week, the conservative Real Jobs NC had spent nearly $900,000 to support GOP legislative candidates and oppose Democrats. That’s less than the group spent in 2010 when it doled out more than $1.5 million. Sixteen of the 22 Democrats targeted that year lost, helping the Republicans gain control of the House and Senate for the first time in 140 years.
This time, 14 N.C. legislative races were targeted, including the Mecklenburg’s new House District 92 where Republican Charles Jeter faced off against Democrat Robin Bradford. All but one of the candidates the group supported won – including Jeter. Super PAC money also reportedly played a role in unseating longtime Mecklenburg House member Martha Alexander in a district redrawn to favor Republicans. And last week a super PAC formed just this month, Citizens for Accountability, spent $61,800 on TV ads across the state for Dan Forest, the GOP challenger to Democrat Linda Coleman for lieutenant governor. That could have been the difference in Forest’s slim win.
Common Sense Matters, a liberal leaning PAC, spent $923,000 in N.C. to mostly oppose legislative candidates and GOP state auditor contender, Debra Goldman. Goldman lost but the group wasn’t very successful in other races.
The Institute for Southern Studies’ report on spending in the state shows that 90 percent of the outside spending came from 10 groups – seven conservative/Republican-leaning committees; three are liberal/Democratic-leaning. The report said Republican-leaning groups had a clear outside money advantage: 71 percent of the spending from the top 10 groups has come from Republican-leaning groups; 29 percent from Democratic-leaning organizations. The single group spending the most money in 2012 so far was the D.C.-based Republican Governors Association, which filed reports showing $4.9 million spent to benefit gubernatorial candidate Pat McCrory, who won Tuesday. Other leading groups spending on behalf of McCrory included Real Jobs NC and Americans for Prosperity.
Real Jobs and Americans for Prosperity keep cropping up in these money conversations as does the name of North Carolina businessman and philanthropist Art Pope. Pope, along with David Koch, helped start AFP. Pope is AFP’s chairman and Koch is the foundation’s chairman. Both were feted at the Republican National Convention in August. Pope also has been a big supporter of Real Jobs NC and has helped N.C. conservatives get elected.
There’s nothing wrong with having a seat at the election table, and using money to get there. Both political parties do it. But the amount of money being used to get there is having outsized influence, particularly at the local and state levels. That’s worrisome. As Bob Hall, director of Democracy North Carolina, a group that advocates campaign-finance reform, said recently of N.C. legislative races:
“The whole process is getting turned into a money auction where having access to money is turning into the most important issue in deciding who wins… It was bad before. It’s much worse now.”
That brings me to something that happened on Election Day that got little notice. Two states, Colorado and Montana got voter support for resolutions urging that Citizens United be overturned. Those were the first statewide initiatives to do so.
They joined seven other states that have passed some kind of resolution announcing support for overturning the ruling. Also, majorities of legislators in Connecticut and Maryland have sent letters to Congress calling for a constitutional amendment opposing the ruling.
These states recognize the corrosive impact the ruling is having. The rest of us must too.
The deluge of nasty ads was bad. But most offensive is the assault on our democracy.