JUNE 11, 2012
During the Republican presidential primaries, the new landscape created by the Supreme Court's Citizens United ruling and other recent loosening of campaign finance regulations took on an almost comic quality -- we could all laugh over the way that Shel Adelson, the casino magnate, and Foster Friess, the aspirin-contraception-advocate, were keeping alive the candidacies of Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum, respectively. Some pundits even ventured the argument the SuperPACs allowed by Citizens United were good for democracy in that they were making the primaries more competitive than they otherwise would've been -- if not for Adelson and Friess, Romney would have put the nomination away much faster.
But now that the presidential primary circus is over, SuperPAC-world isn't looking so funny anymore. That's because the new rules apply not only to presidential races but to congressional ones as well, and the freakish imbalances created by Citizens United are even more glaring and disturbing at that level. Simply put, it is now becoming clear that outside interests that previously would've had to limit their intervention to $2,500-per-donor limits, or jump through a bunch of hoops in the murky world of outside-spending that predated Citizens United, are now literally able to buy an election straight-out, without any shame whatsoever. In a front-page report in today's Washington Post, Dan Eggen surveys some recent races where "custom-crafted" Super-PACs funded by one or two people or companies played a decisive role:
In the High Desert east of Los Angeles, for example, Republican Paul Cook was aided by more than $200,000 worth of ads and mailers from two super PACs in the newly created 8th Congressional District. The groups were formed by the same lawyer within a month of the primary and have not yet had to disclose their donors....
In Texas, Dallas billionaire Harold Simmons has dumped $1 million into two super PACs focused solely on the GOP Senate primary there. One group is running ads supporting Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst (R) while the other is attacking his tea party opponent, Ted Cruz.
But the prize for the most personalized super PAC must surely go to North Carolina, where GOP congressional candidate George Holding was aided by a group funded almost entirely by his family.
Holding, a former U.S. attorney who launched the corruption case against Democrat John Edwards, defeated well-known former Raleigh mayor Paul Coble in the May GOP primary, making Holding the de facto representative of the deep-red district in 2013. Starting behind in the polls and lower in name recognition, Holding went on to win in part thanks to more than $500,000 in television ads from the American Foundations Committee super PAC.
Formed in late February, the group was funded almost entirely by members of Holding’s wealthy banking family, including $100,000 each from an aunt and uncle and $250,000 from a group of cousins, FEC records show.
Representatives of the Holding and Coble campaigns did not respond to requests for comment last week. During the campaign, Coble complained of the “disadvantage when one individual can afford to buy an election,” while Holding representatives characterized the group as a simple gesture of support from family and friends.
“In North Carolina, this was probably one of the first clear examples of what a super PAC is and how it completely changes the rules of the game,” said Bob Phillips, executive director of the state’s Common Cause chapter. He said Coble was “overcome by the money, and I don’t imagine that the average voter probably knew that it was from his opponent’s family.”
Yes, you read that right: the very person who decided that prosecuting John Edwards' attempt to cover up his affair and child was a good use of taxpayer money is now going to win a seat in Congress by virtue of hundreds of thousands of dollars spent on his campaign by his own relatives.
It is hard to overstate the scale of this shift in the landscape. Pre-Citizens United, a company or individual that really wanted to get someone elected generally had to go through the effort of actually drumming up support for the candidate with friends and colleagues, and persuade them to give money of their own, up to the $2,500 limit. And there were checks on this -- for one thing, an employer wasn't allowed to coax employees to give to a favored candidate and then reimburse them quietly later, as I recently reported the FBI is now investigating an Ohio company of having done. But now, a company or individual can just up the SuperPAC and spend to their heart's content.
No worries, though. As Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote in Citizens United, unlimited independent expenditures on behalf of candidates "do not give rise to corruption or the appearance of corruption." Got that?
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