It is not 1896, but Americans can be forgiven during this edgiest of primary seasons if they imagine they’ve been ricocheted back to the days when William Jennings Bryan was waging electoral war with the robber barons. The two key themes of the June 8 primaries, which saw a dozen states choose candidates on the year’s busiest voting day so far, were plutocracy and populism.
In California the plutocrats won by clogging the arteries of democracy with money. Californians don’t actually like former eBay CEO Meg Whitman. Only 24 percent of voters view the corporate insider favorably, according to a new Public Policy Polling survey. Yet Whitman swept a supposedly competitive Republican primary for governor by spending at least $71 million of her own money ($70 a vote) to make her rich-but-not-quite-Meg-Whitman-rich opponent, Insurance Commissioner Steve Poizner, even less liked. In the GOP Senate primary, former Hewlett-Packard CEO Carly Fiorina, whose favorable rating is lower than Whitman’s, primed the pump with enough of her own money to beat more experienced candidates like Congressman Tom Campbell.
California wasn’t the only place where money made itself heard on June 8. The Arkansas Democratic Senate runoff between centrist incumbent Blanche Lincoln and challenger Bill Halter, who was backed by organized labor, saw unprecedented spending by the candidates and interest groups on both sides, much of it negative. And Republican contests for the Senate in Nevada and the governorship in South Carolina were pricey and mean-spirited. But if money was talking elsewhere, in the nation’s most populous state it shouted. Candidates with big bankrolls prevailed on both sides of the partisan aisle, and they often won ugly—as in the Los Angeles area, where conservative Democratic Congresswoman Jane Harman, the second-wealthiest House member, savaged progressive challenger Marcy Winograd with television ads and mailings that painted Winograd’s advocacy for Middle East peacemaking as a threat to Israel. In a race between two Jewish women in a district with a large Jewish population, the negative messaging, combined with a big budget, helped Harman secure a 58-to-41 win.
Particularly unsettling about this year’s surge in big-budget campaigning is that it comes as the Supreme Court is busily deconstructing not just limits on corporate and special-interest spending, with the Citizens United v. FEC ruling, but the underpinnings of existing public-financing laws. The High Court just barred the distribution of matching funds to candidates participating in Arizona’s public campaign finance system. Chief Justice John Roberts and his judicial-activist majority did not shut the system down formally, although there is reason to believe that it is their ultimate intent to strike from the statute books all constraints on the influence of big money over state and national politics. The immediate effect of the Arizona ruling was to clear the way in that state for wealthy candidates to do what Whitman did in California: drown opponents who don’t happen to be billionaires in a sea of negative campaigning. Another impact could be to make reformers think there is no way to write fair election laws—an inclination that must be guarded against, as Common Cause president Bob Edgar notes, with a savvy reminder that the federal Fair Elections Now Act "is carefully crafted to pass constitutional muster even in light of the Roberts Court’s U-turn toward campaign finance deregulation." That said, the extent to which big money muscled the process on June 8 and the clear indications that the Supreme Court will keep meddling strengthens the case for amending the Constitution in a manner that assures that elections do not become the province merely of retired CEOs and corporate Cassandras.
Despite what happened in California and several other states, the process is not entirely lost. Where candidates were reasonably equally matched financially and had to win on the strength of their messages, the voting provided more reminders that Americans are ready to crack down on Wall Street. That was clear in Arkansas, where Halter’s populist challenge to Lincoln forced the senior senator to reposition herself as a populist. Lincoln’s final ads had the senator talking about how she’s "taking on Wall Street with the toughest reform bill of anyone in either party." And in fact, Lincoln did insert provisions into the financial services reform bill that would force big banks to erect firewalls between Main Street consumer operations and speculative ones on Wall Street. So, while Halter and his union backers lost a primary, they may have won a war by forcing Lincoln to remake herself and banking regulations.
They did something else as well. Unions that put feet on the ground in Arkansas turned out Democratic votes for former high school teacher and union leader Joyce Elliott, a runoff winner who is positioned to become the state’s first African-American Congress member and a progressive voice in the House. Maine State Senate president Libby Mitchell, a clean-money campaigner who emphasized populist economics and a commitment to marriage equality, was nominated for governor, while former US Attorney Roxanne Conlin secured the Democratic nod to mount a "make them accountable" challenge to Iowa Republican Senator Chuck Grassley—a reminder that Democratic incumbents aren’t the only ones vulnerable to a throw-the-bums-out message.
Of course, the Tea Party movement is still stirring the pot in GOP primaries, and gaining more than its fair share of headlines—even as its favored contenders lost high-profile races in states from California to Virginia. The real story is that there’s been at least as much "angry with Washington" voting on the Democratic side of primary ballots. Sometimes candidates with time-for-a-change messages win outright, as with Conlin in Iowa; sometimes they win on the issues, forcing DC veterans like Lincoln to change their tune. But the story of the 2010 campaign could be written as much, or more, by genuine economic populists on the left as by the faux Tea Partisans on the right—so long as the real reformers can make themselves heard above the noise made by all that big money.