News & Politics

A Ground's Eye View of How Millions of Shady Corporate Political Dollars Are Hijacking This Election

'It’s pretty clear that corporations now have the ability to spend unlimited amounts of money to take on people like my boss.'

What does a torrent of cash from anonymous corporate donors look like on the ground, in the heat of a Congressional race?

Rep. Bruce Braley is one of dozens of Democrats who’s discovering the answer to that question this fall. Braley has represented Iowa’s 1st -- a Democratic leaning district that encompasses Davenport -- the largest of the Quad Cities -- and college towns like Dubuque and Cedar Falls, since 2007. He took 64 percent of the vote in 2008.

Facing challenger Ben Lange, one of the Republican National Campaign Committee’s “Young Guns” and an up-and-coming conservative, Braley has a tougher fight this cycle. He’s holding a lead -- forecaster Nate Silver gives him more than a 90 percent chance of keeping his seat -- but his opponent has made the race closer than it might have been with the help of a bundle of campaign cash from a shady corporate front group called the American Future Fund (AFF).

The New York Times estimated that AFF has spent at least $574,000 on ads attacking the Democrat this cycle, but Braley communications director Caitlin Legacki told AlterNet the figure was closer to $1.8 million, including spending that isn’t strictly counted as “electioneering.” Lange’s also enjoyed another quarter-million worth of attack ads from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.

In the wake of the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision, neither group is required to disclose its donors.

The American Future Fund was founded by Nick Ryan, a GOP lobbyist who served as the campaign manager for Jim Nussle’s 2006 Iowa gubernatorial run. It was started in 2007 with seed money put up by Bruce Rastetter, an ethanol company exec and reliable conservative donor, according to the New York Times.

The Des Moines Register reported that AFF has spent $8.9 million so far this cycle on behalf of conservative candidates. Despite the big money, the Register reported, “If you try to visit the ‘office’ of the Iowa-based advocacy organization that is shaking up political fundraising nationwide, you will find yourself standing in front of a mailbox at a private shipping service store on the south side of Des Moines.”

According to a complaint filed by Public Citizen and several other watchdog groups, AFF “is registered as a 501(c)(4) organization, which under IRS tax code cannot have a primary purpose of influencing elections.” The complaint alleges that the shadowy lobby “appears to be violating campaign finance law,” and called on the Federal Elections Commission to investigate its activities.

The Register noted that the anonymous nature of AFF’s donors has “raised controversy about who's seeking to influence the political process.” But it’s clear that the group is pulling in campaign dollars from corporate interest groups. AFF founder Nick Ryan boasted to the Register that in this cycle, the "corporate floodgates are opened."

“It’s pretty clear that corporations now have the ability to spend unlimited amounts of money to take on people like my boss,” said Caitlin Legacki. “This is a clear situation in which that’s happening.”

According to the Iowa Independent, the group’s leaders include “two media consultants who played key roles in the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth ads in 2004 and the Willie Horton ad in 1988, both of which helped defeat Democratic presidential candidates.”

Those campaigns have become classics of sleazy politics. Unsurprisingly, AFF’s ads have been especially nasty. According to the New York Times:

One that is particularly pernicious shows images of the ruined World Trade Center and then intones, “Incredibly, Bruce Braley supports building a mosque at ground zero.” Actually, Mr. Braley has never said that, stating only that the matter should be left to New Yorkers.

Another implies that Mr. Braley supports a middle-class tax increase because he voted to adjourn the House at a time when some Republicans had proposed cutting income taxes on everyone. In fact, Mr. Braley supports extending the Bush-era tax cuts for the middle class, while letting them expire for families making $250,000 or more to avoid adding $700 billion to the deficit.

Caitlin Legacki told AlterNet that “anytime somebody is not required to stand by their ads, as candidates are, they have a lot more room to be especially vitriolic and especially misleading.” She added: “Because there’s no instrument in place for these people to be held accountable, they have free rein.”The ad-checker Political Correction reviewed three AFF ads against Braley -- and one paid for by the U.S. Chamber of commerce -- and found they were “not based in fact.”

The New York Times reported that Braley “is only one of many candidates being pummeled this year by secret money and shamefully false advertising.” In the neighboring Third District, incumbent Democrat Leonard Boswell, who advocates reining in agricultural subsidies that help pad ethanol producers’ bottom lines, is facing a similar onslaught. Boswell handled his Republican challenger easily in 2008, defeating Kim Schmett by a 14-point margin, but last week Real Clear Politics’ electoral forecast moved this year’s race against Iowa state senator Brad Zaun into the “toss-up” column (this week it’s back to “leans Dem”).

The river of third-party cash, made legal last year by the Supreme Court, is in part a result of right-wing donors looking to capitalize on an enthusiastic conservative base, and in part by Republicans’ distrust of the National Republican Committee under the leadership of Michael Steele.

The result has been the advent of the “super-pac,” which the Washington Post described as “a new political weapon” that allows ”independent groups to both raise and spend money at a pace that threatens to eclipse the efforts of political parties.”

The corporate-funded super-PACs, led by veteran GOP operatives, are reportedly coordinating their efforts in weekly strategy sessions and dividing up Congressional districts in order to avoid overlap.

With a ton of unaccountable cash, and millions of low-information voters stirred into a near frenzy by talk of “death panels” and Kenyan interlopers in the White House taking over the economy -- and with a less energized Democratic base -- The Hill’s survey of42 swing districts “suggest[s] a GOP pickup that could easily top 50 seats.” Veteran forecaster Stuart Rothenberg wrote this week that the Dems “face the potential of a political bloodbath the size of which we haven’t seen since the presidency of Franklin Delano Roosevelt.”

If that should prove true, it’ll be a result of the GOP successfully expanding the field of seats in play, largely because of the efforts of these third-party groups. $500,000 or a million in attack ads has far more impact on a Congressional race than it would a fight for statewide office. Although unions and other Dem-aligned groups have started to respond of late -- the Washington Post reports that a late fundraising flurry has allowed Democratic groups to spend two-thirds of what their opponents have over the past week -- outside GOP groups had been outspending their Dem counterparts seven to one before that.

Voters will never know who’s behind the onslaught of advertising the corporate-funded super-pacs are buying. But as the Times noted in a recent op-ed,“rest assured that the big corporations and donors will make their identities known to the winners they push into office. The price for their support will be high.”