The five Republican stooges on the Supreme Court must be very happy. They clearly hoped to give Republicans an advantage in future elections when they took the extreme judicial activist measure in the Citizens United v. FEC decision of overturning a major chunk of the McCain-Feingold campaign finance–reform law. By opening the floodgates to unlimited secret corporate contributions, they figured that they would help the party of corporate cronyism outspend Democrats. So far, they are being proven right.
The most recent financial disclosure reports released by the Federal Elections Commission over the weekend show conservative Super PACs heavily out-raising and out-spending liberal ones. And while President Obama will be able to compete financially because his campaign will raise plenty of money on its own, Democrats may be at a serious disadvantage in down-ballot races where candidate fundraising is considerably lower and a national Super PAC can deluge a small media market with misleading negative advertisements and mailings.
“Conservative interest groups have dumped well over $20 million into congressional races so far this year, outspending their liberal opponents 4 to 1 and setting off a growing panic among Democrats struggling to regain the House and hold on to their slim majority in the Senate,” reports the Washington Post. “The money could be particularly crucial in races below the national radar that can be easily influenced by infusions of outside spending.”
So far this money is being used to drive the future Republican caucuses in the House and Senate further to the right. From the Post:
One example came this week in Nebraska, where a dark-horse Republican Senate candidate upset two better-funded rivals in the GOP primary thanks in part to a last-minute, $250,000 ad buy by a billionaire-backed Super PAC. And in Indiana this month, veteran Senator Richard G. Lugar was ousted in the GOP primary by challenger Richard Mourdock with the help of millions of dollars in spending by conservative groups. The Club for Growth, which backed a losing candidate in Nebraska, spent more than $2 million to help Mourdock in Indiana.”
Up until now there were other theoretical explanations—besides the obvious one, which is that it pays to be a tool of the rich and powerful—for why Republicans had so much more Super PAC money than Democrats. Initially Republicans supported the Citizens United Supreme Court decision that created Super PACs and Democrats, especially President Obama, did not. So Republicans jumped out to an early lead in Super PAC fundraising, which allowed them to vastly outspend Democrats in close Congressional races in 2010. Then in 2011 and early 2012, Republicans were engaged in a competitive presidential primary while Democrats were not, and Super PAC spending was heavy on behalf of candidates such as Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich but not President Obama. Obama gave Democratic donors the green light to pour money into the Priorities USA Super PAC, but it has not kept pace with its Republican counterparts. The Huffington Post reports, “The group has raised $10.57 million since being founded in 2011, far behind the $50-plus million raised by Restore Our Future and the $28 million raised by American Crossroads.”
But they aren’t anywhere near parity yet and they may never reach it. The reason is obvious. Republicans represent the narrow economic interests of entrenched wealth and privilege, while Democrats advocate for a stronger social safety net and reduced inequality. This has always given Republicans some advantage in fundraising, since the wealthy will obviously give more than the poor or middle class. But the wealthy are also fewer, and their donations were limited to reasonable maximums by campaign finance law, while corporations were banned from giving to candidates. Now that corporations and billionaires have a vehicle for unlimited donations, just one of them can give more than if millions of Americans each donated their entire savings. Giving to Republicans can turn a profit when they are elected and fulfill their promises to crush collective bargaining, quash environmental and workplace safety regulations, and cut taxes. So corporations and their wealthy owners have an incentive beyond mere ideology to give heavily.
And so the partisan disparity in Super PAC spending on Congressional races from 2010 is being recreated in 2012. During the Republican presidential primaries in some states, Super PAC spending on advertising outstripped spending by the campaigns themselves. As the New York Times notes, “Through the middle of May, Restore Our Future had spent more than $44.5 million on advertising, direct mail and other advertising, roughly double what Mr. Romney’s campaign had spent during the same period.” If that holds true in the general election, it will favor Republicans, especially in down-ballot races, immensely.
These advertisements that conservative Super PACs buy, which are nominally about educating the public rather than electing candidates, are in no way educational. In fact, much like Fox News coverage, which often repeats the claims these ads make verbatim and without fact-checking, they are primarily focused on spreading lies.
Consider the recent ad buys, including one of $25 million, by Crossroads. In April Crossroads released an ad attacking Obama for being an unserious “celebrity” who appears on late night television while the country goes to Hell. Its statistic to burnish this dark view: “Survey: 85% of New College Grads Move Back in with Mom and Dad.” What survey? It turns out, according to Politifact, that the survey in question was the product of an obscure and now defunct firm that will not divulge any information about its methodology. But the firm’s director did say the survey was done “years ago” and is therefore not appropriate for use in an ad on the current president’s record in office. A March 2012 report from the Pew Center found 42 percent of college graduates 18- to 29-years-old living at home. The ad earned a “false” rating from Politifact.
And the ad that is getting $25 million worth of airtime? Factcheck.org finds its central claim to be “almost entirely false.” They write:
The latest multimillion-dollar attack ad from Crossroads GPS claims President Obama broke a promise to not increase taxes for families making less than $250,000 a year. That’s almost entirely false.
The truth is that Obama repeatedly cut taxes for such families, first through a tax credit in effect for 2009 and 2010, and beginning in 2011, through a reduction in the payroll tax that is worth $1,000 this year to workers earning $50,000 a year. And while it’s true that some tax increases contained in the new health care law would fall on individuals, they have mostly not taken effect yet and are small compared with the cuts the president already enacted. And this ad exaggerates them greatly.
The other claims in the ad are judged by Factcheck.org to be “misleading,” and you can read their full debunking here.
Of course, Super PACs are legally barred from coordinating with campaigns and there is the possibility, remote as it may be, that some Super PAC spending can do more harm than good. Last week Romney condemned a plan by billionaire investor Joe Ricketts to run a $10 million ad campaign tying President Obama to the inflammatory statements of his former pastor Jeremiah Wright. As Politico notes:
The risk from rogue third-party groups is a potential menace to both Republicans and Democrats. The GOP has seen more Super PACs and 501(c)(4) groups form to support its candidates, but there’s nothing to stop an individual liberal gazillionaire from commissioning ads on a subject the Obama campaign doesn’t want to talk about — say, Mitt Romney’s Mormon faith. And rogue ads could create friendly fire as much as score points against the opposition, as the official GOP’s repudiation of the Ending Spending plan showed.
But that too can be a blessing as much as a curse. Draft dodger George W. Bush disassociated himself with the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth smearing of war hero John Kerry’s record of service in Vietnam. But Bush benefited enormously from the widely repeated claims in the ads. Even news stories debunking the falsehoods peddled by the Swift Boat group may have reinforced negative images of Kerry. Certainly it put him on the defensive. Indeed, this outsourcing of attacks—with a wink and a nudge—has been around almost as long as television commercials for candidates. The most famously effective attack ad in recent presidential politics, the 1988 commercial blaming Massachusetts Governor Michael Dukakis for a murder committed by a convict named Willie Horton who was out of prison in a furlough program, was not actually paid for by Dukakis’ opponent, George H.W. Bush but by an outside group. Romney may have ultimately benefited from the opportunity to remind voters of Obama’s inflammatory pastor without having to do so himself.
Whatever the specifics of each ad play, it is clear that overall the flood of money from billionaires and corporations into campaigns is helping one party more than the other. The RNC can thank John Roberts for a job well done.