By CHRIS SAUTTER
WASHINGTON – In his 2010 State of the Union address, President Obama caused a major stir when he sharply condemned the U.S. Supreme Court’s 5-4 decision in the Citizens United case. Citizens United held that corporations, unions, and issue advocacy groups have a constitutional right to spend unlimited amounts of money to influence elections. Obama said the decision would “open the floodgates for special interests, including foreign corporations, to spend without limit in our elections.” Democrats uniformly feared it would give Republicans the financial advantage to sweep the 2012 elections.
But now Democrats are learning to love Super PACs after an election cycle in which they re-elected the President, held onto control of the Senate, and gained seats in the House. During the 2012 campaign, Obama allies established Priorities, USA, an Obama-sanctioned Super PAC that spent almost $80 million to re-elect the President. Organizing for America, Obama’s grassroots lobbying group run by former aides, has started raising millions from wealthy donors to underwrite a campaign to push the President’s agenda. And, New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s Super PAC Independence USA spent over $2 million on ads to help the candidate favored by Team Obama win the Illinois special election to replace Jesse Jackson, Jr.
Progressive and labor Super PACs have also exploited the Citizens United decision. CREDO Action, an affiliate of the San Francisco based Credo mobile phone company, targeted ten Tea Party House Republicans for defeat, naming their campaign “Take Down the Tea Party Ten.” Five of the ten candidates went down to defeat, including Tea Party favorites Allen West and Joe Walsh. CREDO focused its efforts on canvassing and direct voter contact rather than advertising. A multi-million dollar pro-labor Super PAC called Workers’ Voice followed a similar model of organizing over media.
The Republican Super PACs that were supposed to deliver the presidency and control of the U.S. Senate failed so miserably in 2012 in spite of having spent almost a billion dollars combined that many in the GOP question whether Super PACs are worth supporting at all. Karl Rove, the architect of the Republican Super PAC strategy, in particular has faced withering criticism. Not only did Mitt Romney lose, but 10 of 12 of Rove’s U.S. Senate targets and four of nine House candidates Rove’s groups supported lost their races.
The role of Super PACs during the Republican 2012 presidential primary process and in the Illinois special election suggest that they will have their greatest impact in primaries and general elections when candidates have limited resources, in part due to the limitations in campaign contributions. That wasn’t the case in the presidential general election when there was relative financial parity and in many of the U.S. Senate races that were targeted by both sides.
This isn’t the first time Democrats have adapted to campaign finance rules that seemingly favor Republicans. During the early 1970’s Democrats led the charge for the Watergate era campaign reforms that required candidates to disclose sources of campaign contributions and expenditures. After the Supreme Court ruled in 1976 in Buckley v. Valeo that contribution limits central to the reforms were constitutional, Republicans began out raising Democrats by a ratio of 13 to one.
Former Congressman and Chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee Tony Coelho then changed the way Democratic House members raised money. “Special interest is not a nasty word,” Coelho used to say. Coehlo aggressively pursued business PAC dollars for DCCC candidates, telling Republican corporate executives they needed to support Democrats if they wanted Congress to consider their views.
Coelho’s approach allowed Democrats to hold on to seats in hostile House districts through 1994 when Republicans finally swept to power. But as Coelho marketed the Democratic Party as more pro-business, it became more dependent upon “Republican” money and less capable of bringing about progressive change. In short, Democrats became more dependent upon and politically connected to Corporate America than the American middle class.
Democrats were slow to embrace Super PACs because most oppose the Citizens United ruling as a matter of principle. Most Democratic strategists say it is the only way to survive in the era of Citizens United.
Bloomberg’s Super PAC focuses on gun control and in the Illinois special U.S. House election backed Robin Kelly who favors an assault weapons ban. But Anthony Beale, one of the losers in the Illinois special election who authored Chicago’s tough gun laws, warned that billionaires buying elections is bad for the party and democracy. “If this is the future of the Democratic Party, then we are all in trouble,” he said on election night.
Former Senator Russ Feingold, co-author of the 2002 McCain-Feingold Act that was partially overturned by the Supreme Court in Citizens United case, maintains Democrats would have won in 2012 without Super PACs. Feingold argues that Beltway Democrats can’t reform big money politics because they are addicted to big money. Feingold challenges liberal donors to stop giving to Super PACs because they are simply enabling the Beltway addicts. Feingold calls on liberal activists to redirect their energy into passing a constitutional amendment reversing Citizens United and to push for “achievable goals” such as public financing of elections, disclosure of donors to non-profits and shell corporations, and overhauling the dysfunctional Federal Election Commission.
Recently, the Supreme Court agreed to hear a challenge to the aggregate limit on how much an individual may donate to political parties, candidates and PACs in an election cycle. Many observers expect the Court to deliver another Citizens United. If so, such a ruling will constitute yet another step toward undoing the campaign reforms that were passed in the era of Watergate.
Few Americans believe that the flood of private money that now goes into funding political campaigns is good for democracy or for the economic health of the country. Indeed, there is considerable evidence that the decline of the middle class over the past three decades is tied directly to the explosion of special interest funding of campaigns. Whether the Democratic Party retains its commitment to progressive reform or has hopelessly acquiesced to the power of money remains to be seen.