With Karl Rove’s efforts to oust the president ramping up but still looking likely to come up short, some will be tempted to declare that fears of a dark-money election era were overblown. Unfortunately, they couldn’t be more wrong. While Obama looks likely to survive (at the cost of his own concessions to big-money politics), dark-money elections are unfolding all around us, and undisclosed contributions could decide to what extent he actually gets to govern.
Just look at California. Republicans are still strong favorites to hold the House. But the US Chamber of Commerce isn’t taking any chances. As National Journal reported, the Chamber dropped $3.3 million for TV ads backing nine GOP House candidates in the state; most of that cash is just for ads airing between September 28 and October 7. Democrats have described the chance for seven California pick-ups as central to their hopes for the House. If an Obama sweep puts that dream in reach, the Chamber’s big spending could be what tears it away. (On Thursday, it announced another blitz, on behalf of six Republicans in New York state; it’s also supporting a couple conservative Democrats.)
Indeed, dark money from Super PACs and trade associations always posed the greatest threat in state and local races, where voters—and reporters—pay the least attention. That makes them a ripe target for secret donors, whose outsized ad-war firepower could determine who controls both houses of Congress. That’s a prospect that should scare big-D and small-d democrats alike.
The Chamber’s role in buying our elections makes it especially galling to watch it name-checked by candidates as an authoritative source. But even in true-blue Massachusetts, the Chamber gets invoked by GOP candidates as an earnest number-cruncher and independent source on whose policies are good for growth (same goes for its little brother, the National Federation of Independent Business, which Romney cited twice in Wednesday’s debate). When voters hear “Chamber of Commerce,” says Public Citizen President Robert Weissman, many imagine “their local Chamber of Commerce, providing information about restaurants and hotels and representing local community businesses. Or, many people think it’s part of the government, like the Department of Commerce.” The US Chamber, Weissman observes, acts as “the trade association for the country’s largest multinational corporations,” but “trades on general public misunderstanding of what it is.”
“The Chamber’s voice on this is not really representative of a broad array of businesses across the country,” says David Levine, the co-founder and CEO of the American Sustainable Business Council. Levine is one of a new wave of organizations of common sense business leaders. “What we’re seeing,” he says, “is a tremendous growth in main street business organizations, in small business organizations, in sustainable business organizations…recognizing that there is a different way of doing business that can bring greater value to the economy and to their community.” Levine says the Chamber’s support for “an all-out rampage against government and all regulations and rules” is costing it business support. Unfortunately, it’s still got heavy hitters in its corner.