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Sunday, November 11, 2012

Democratic Addiction to Congressional SuperPACs?

According to Rodell Molineau, executive director of the Democratic super PAC American Bridge, "The meta-lesson from [the 2012] election cycle is that showing up and participating in the process is key, which is something that we didn't do in 2010. I think a lot of Democrats ceded the field on super PACs because most people in progressive circles didn't believe in the Citizens United ruling." The fact is, sometimes you have to play by rules you don’t agree with in order to compete. The obvious danger is that one gets coopted by those rules in the process, even having a financial disincentive to push for a repeal of the problematic rule. In other words, the rule gains the benefit of being the status quo and thus becomes extremely difficult to dislodge. In this case, the rule is that of unlimited corporate and union spending made possible by the U.S. Supreme Court’s Citizen’s United ruling on January 21, 2010.
In 2010, the Huffington Post reports, “conservative outside groups held a three-to-one advantage in spending on House races and a slightly more than two-to-one advantage in Senate races, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. The formation of the Democratic super PACs and their coordination with traditional liberal groups—labor, environmental and women's groups—helped cut that advantage to less than two-to-one in both House and Senate races in 2012, according to Federal Election Commission data. . . . In the end, conservative groups reported spending $102 million on House races, compared with $79 million for Democratic groups. In Senate races, conservatives spent $135 million, compared with $89 million for Democrats.” However, former U.S. senator Russ Feingold, co-author of the 2003 campaign finance reform act, said, “I don’t think we won because of this thing.” This remark is crucial should it be necessary to ween Democratic Congressional leaders off an addiction to the sugary superPAC money.
One other major factor the former senator could have been referring to is the impact on Congressional races of the Obama campaign’s ground-game and related systematic data-collection efforts in 2012. Specifically, the campaign was able to identify new voters, track their opinions, and get them out to vote. Congressional campaigns and even groups such as MoveOn were able to tap into that resource in getting out the vote. Getting out the base made all the difference in the 2012 election, particularly as most counties in most states shifted back in a Republican direction after tilting blue for Obama in 2008.
Another factor is the mistakes that Congressional candidates themselves made, such as Richard Mourdock, the Republican candidate in Indiana for the U.S. Senate seat formerly held by Dick Lugar, claiming that a rape victim getting pregnant is “God’s will.” It is questionable whether any amount of superPAC money could undo such a gaffe.  A similar though less outlandish case involves Mitt Romney’s comment made in private to a group of rich potential donors that it would not be his job as president to worry about the 47 percent of Americans who did not own income taxes (but paid other taxes) in 2011. In other words, voters are capable of ignoring the political ads in such cases and voting on the basis of what they have reason to believe more accurately depicts the candidate’s judgment and opinions. One would like to think that voters could see through the slickly marketed political ads on television in every case, but having the ad edge can help a candidate, particularly in reducing the opponent’s support.
Sadly, having a lot of money counts in Congressional elections. In the constitutional convention in 1787, some delegates worried that Congress, unlike the state legislatures, would be an aristocratic body—even the U.S. House, which was to be the repository of democracy in the new federal government. By the twenty-first century, the populations of the states had become much more than they were in 1787, including relative to the number of members of Congress. The U.S. as a whole reached 300 million around the year 2000, with only 535 members of Congress. The aristocratic element can be seen in these numbers alone. It should be no surprise that candidates for those offices would attract a great amount of money, and with it private influence over public policy. Even were Citizens United upended by a future decision or an amendment to the U.S. Constitution, it would be difficult to hold back the flood of money attracted to all the power that Congress has amassed since the Great Depression in the 1930’s. 
In other words, the sound of money is simply a reverberation of the nature of power in an increasingly consolidated political empire. Whether or not the Democratic Party succumbs to its financial incentive to retain SuperPACs to which donors can give unlimited amounts of money, effective campaign finance reform would be part of a broader and deeper reform oriented to breaking up the concentration of power in what was once known as American federalism.


Paul Blumenthal, “Democratic Super PACs Trim Conservative Advantage in Congressional Races,” The Huffington Post, November 10, 2012.