How the Rich Are Turning State and Local Races Into Their Own Personal Political Playgrounds
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The 2012 election has become a political extreme sport for wealthy individuals and corporate America, as they have blown off whatever’s left in campaign finance laws and have strutted on the electoral field as the rest of us watch like spectators from the cheap seats. But what’s not fully appreciated is how the plutocrats’ stampede doesn’t stop with the presidency, but is playing an outsized role in many down-ballot and state races.
“People who are trying to buy influence in the political system do not stop at the federal level,” said Kathy Kiely, managing editor of the Sunlight Foundation’s reporting group, one of the best investigative teams covering money in politics. “Lots of times the states become a very appealing route because it doesn’t take much money.”
In many respects, the down-ballot impact of the U.S. Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision has taken a back seat as the fight for the White House has ruled the airwaves. But because less is known about these ‘lower-level’ contests, and because they are in smaller media markets, big money can go even further to upend the process.
Denise Roth Barber, research director at the National Institute for Money in State Politics said that Citizens United is just the best-known of many court rulings in recent decades that have made it possible for a range of wealthy players to become opportunists in elections—some of whom are individuals who are willing to take public stances while others are more secretive financiers who bankroll groups that hide their identity.
The 2012 political season has had more than its share of both of these players, whose common thread is their wealth and desire to use it to influence politics in ways that a majority of Americans cannot—and do not. For exhibit A, all Roth Barber has to do is walk 10 minutes from her Helena, Montana office to state Republican headquarters. On October 5, a federal judge struck down all Montana campaign contribution limits. That ruling was reversed six days later by a federal appeals court—but not before the state GOP funneled $500,000 to their 2012 gubernatorial candidate, Rick Hill.
“Rick Hill did receive $500,000 from the Montana GOP, which definitely came from outside the state,” she said. “The Montana GOP did not have that money sitting around. They were allowed to give like $22,000 and they had given that already.”
That political money equivalent of a drone attack—dumping half-a-million from secret sources—is just one of the undemocratic distortions unfolding in 2012 below the top of the ticket. Outside of presidential swing states, newly created Orwellian-named groups are also dropping ad bombs for candidates who campaigns were deservedly crashing.
Take Illinois’ Rep. Joe Walsh, a Republican who last week blared that an abortion has never saved a woman’s life. In a race in which he was trailing, the “Now or Never PAC” spent $2 million on TV ads to boost Walsh and attack Democratic challenger Tammy Duckworth. Another congressional right-winger in a tight race, Rep. Alan West, R-FL, was helped by a $1 million TV buy from the “Treasure Coast Jobs Coalition,” another opaque group whose biggest donor is a New Jersey physician-turned-pharmaceutical executive with unfinished business before federal drug regulators.
The Citizens United and SpeechNow string of legal rulings in 2010 that created so-called ‘super PACs’ only account for one of three big money political money pathways used today. The second is outsized spending by individuals in a few states with no donation caps—they don’t need fabricated groups as conduits. The third is the expanded use of non-profits (which are not required by the IRS to disclose donors) to run campaigns, which has been used by business lobbyists for years but has grown widely in 2012.