Campaign Finance Power Plays
The Path We’re Tredding
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Money and Politics
Last Saturday evening we streamed the 2018 documentary “Dark Money”. It was fascinating—and thoroughly disturbing—like so much else lately in our politics. The documentary shares its name with Jane Mayer’s 2016 book, “Dark Money”, but rather than offering the big picture of Mayer’s book, the movie details a specific example (and likely just the tip of the iceberg). The movie hones in on a case of corruption of local politics by a national power brokers wielding vast amounts of cash in Montana in 2010. Montana State Senator Art Wittich was convicted in 2016 of receiving illegal campaign contributions. The National Right to Work Committee (a vehemently anti-union Republican non-profit) funded attack ads against Wittich’s opponent in 2010 (a practice made legal by the Citizens United v. FEC Supreme Court case). An independent investigative reporter, by dint of vast effort, assembled damning evidence of coordination between Wittich and National Right to Work representatives. It wasn’t the expenditure, but rather the coordination that was illegal. The documentary leaves one with the disturbing feeling that dark money groups like National Right to Work found the Wittich case a learning experience, a lesson to guide them in being more careful in the future. Proving coordination is extraordinarily difficult. For an organization with vast amounts of cash from obscure Republican donors, the sacrifice of one Montana state legislator and the cost of slap-on-the-wrist fine is little more than an irritation on the way toward controlling one state’s government.
Sunday, November 6, the Spokesman Review carried an opinion piece by Marc Thiessen (of the American Enterprise Institute, one of the original dark money non-profits), entitled McConnell’s PACs Put Money Where Trump’s Mouth Is. (Read it for free on AEI’s website by clicking the title.) For me Thiessen’s article highlighted something he did not intend: Mitch McConnell sits atop a vast pile of money that he strategically deploys (at least theoretically without “coordinating” with the candidate campaigns) gobs of cash fueling attack ads to shore up the chances of Republicans taking back the U.S. Senate by promoting such marginal candidates as J.D. Vance and Herschel Walker, candidates of whom McConnell himself has questioned the “quality”. Thiessen’s point, of course, isn’t to decry the fact that McConnell controls and is spending nearly a quarter of billion dollars in his effort, but to criticize Trump for withholding his campaign funds from the effort. Does Thiessen lacks awareness of how sick this is? He gleefully points out how huge cash infusions by McConnell-controlled superPACs fuel volumes of TV attack ads that can tip the balance in favor of marginal candidates. Candidate campaigns are legally limited in the amounts of money they can accept from various sources. SuperPACs, like those controlled by McConnell, have no contribution limits to speak of (thanks to Citizens United) as long as they don’t get caught “coordinating” with the candidate campaigns. Uber wealthy businesses, for example, can (and do) contribute vast sums in the hope of electing legislators who they think will make it even easier to amass more wealth.
Meanwhile, both Republicans and the media will point out that, “Democrats are getting dark money, too!” as if that means everything is equal. But what the rightwing billionaires know is:
If they flood the zone with too much money it’ll get noticed, so they’re careful to just match — and then only slightly surpass — the money Democrats can raise.
This prevents widespread political outrage and lets Republicans win “close elections” as if everything was still “normal” and our democracy was working as it should. (Thus, the “closing gap” stories we’re reading right now.)
But they know in a pinch they can always just dump another few million or billion dollars when a race is essential to their interests. Plus, having a few Democrats like Manchin and Sinema in their pockets is their ultimate ace-in-the-hole.
When I think of Thiessen’s article and the amounts of money that Thiessen describes McConnell as pouring on Senate campaigns in the late stages of the election run-up it strikes me as a confirmation of #3 above. (Note that the cleverly named SuperPAC, the “Senate Leadership Fund”, just one of the streams of cash McConnell controls, took in a quarter of a billion dollars by itself during this election cycle, making McConnell’s total investment in the current election as detailed by Thiessen completely plausible.)
Thanks to Citizens United v. FEC and the Republican Supreme Court majority that used it to trash campaign finance law, American elections are becoming a playground of the uber-wealthy. If either the U.S. House or U.S. Senate winds up in the hands of Republicans for the next two years you should expect things to get even worse. If we don’t eventually turn this around we will slip further into a corrupt oligarchy.
Keep to the high ground,