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.
“One particularly important function of the Chamber,” says Weissman, “is as a funnel for corporate dark money.” He adds that about forty-five companies “provide the vast bulk of the Chamber’s funding”—but we don’t know who they are. As Lee Fang wrote in The Nation, Aetna reported $100,000 in Chamber dues in 2010, but accidentally revealed a $4 million Chamber contribution on a regulatory filing in 2011.
Of course, the big money brigades have eyes on many prizes—and many conduits to seize them. On Monday, The Washington Post reported on the cool almost-million the Koch-backed Americans for Prosperity plans to spend to flip both houses of the Arkansas state legislature, the last two Democratic chambers in the old Confederacy. For a sense of the stakes, just consider Jane Mayer’s 2011 New Yorker portrait of multimillionaire Art Pope’s successful spending to paint the North Carolina legislature red—just in time for congressional redistricting.
Big-money politics reinforces itself. Secret spending advantages politicians who go to Washington to fight for secret spenders. The president’s failure to reform campaign finance over the past four years leaves him more likely to be saddled with an obstructionist Congress over the next four. Democrats have at least been better than their counterparts. Several dozen House and Senate Democrats have sponsored some or all of the myriad bills to overturn Citizens United or require disclosure. The president himself has come around to the recognition that a constitutional amendment could be necessary—a reality now reflected in his party’s platform.
Change is daunting, but urgent. As I’ve often argued, we have to repeal Citizens United—a move backed by scores of state and local resolutions. But in the meantime, disclosure could do a great deal of good, especially in the case of the Chamber. “The brand name corporations do not want to be associated with partisan politicking,” says Weissman, “and if their contributions were disclosed, then consumers and the public generally could hold them accountable. That is a prospect that terrorizes them.”
The good news is, the public is already on the right side. On a Thursday call, Democratic pollster Stan Greenberg shared polling (conducted for pro-reform groups) of voters in fifty-four endangered GOP congressional districts. By a two to one margin, voters wanted Super PAC power limited. Eight out of ten believe that this money is designed to win favors from politicians. As for the conservative claim that unlimited contributions are a form of free speech, Greenberg said, “there just is no support for that concept” in the poll. But he said that in these voters’ view, “neither party is addressing this. The Democrats have no advantage on this.” That’s a warning—and an opportunity, if Democrats heed it.
For more on the flood of corporate money into electoral politics, check out Lee Fang on the Koch brothers’ ground game.