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After the Campaign Cash, the Backlash

The 2010 midterm elections—the first since Citizens United opened the floodgates to corporate campaign cash—were the most expensive in history. So what happens next?
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Corporate Spending, Photo by David Neubert

Photo by David Neubert

“With the recent Supreme Court ruling, we are in a position to be able to take corporate positions that were not previously available in allowing our voices to be heard.” So wrote Roger Nicholson, senior vice president and general counsel of the International Coal Group, a mining company based in WestVirginia, in a letter to other coal companies.

Nicholson goes on to explain that “a number of coal industry representatives recently have been considering developing a 527 entity with the purpose of attempting to defeat anti-coal incumbents in select races, as well as elect pro-coal candidates running for certain open seats. We're requesting your consideration as to whether your company would be willing to meet to discuss a significant commitment to such an effort."

Coal executives had already been putting money into the races that Nicholson cited as being particularly “of interest” (races against politicians who had supported environmental and safety regulations for coal mining companies) but in the form of individual, legally limited contributions. A 527 would allow them to spend far more.

Of course, the coal industry wasn’t alone in seeing Tuesday’s elections as a historic opportunity for promoting its corporate interests in the political sphere. Finance, health care, energy, telecommunications—lots of industries found they had political needs and the money to protect them.

Can’t buy me love?

The first national election since the Supreme Court’s January decision in Citizens United v. the Federal Election Commission (which unleashed corporations to spend unlimited—not to mention largely undisclosed and unregulated—amounts of money on political advertising) was the most expensive midterm in history. According to the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics, candidates, political parties, and interest groups spent some $3.5 billion to sway voters—with the number expected to rise to $4 billion once all the money is counted. That beats the 2006 midterm elections by more than a billion dollars.

The scariest part isn’t how much money was spent in this year’s election. It’s how much will be spent in elections to come as a political spending arms race escalates.

(As a comparison, $4 billion is the amount that the U.S. pledged last month to the Global Fund to fight AIDS, tuberculosis, and malaria … over the course of three years.)

But can money really buy votes? A new report from Public Citizen found that, of 74 races in which a seat changed parties, 58 went to the candidate who had received the most money from outside groups empowered by Citizens United. Winning candidates received an average of $764,326 in outside money (not counting candidate or party funds), compared to $273,268 for losing candidates. Some races were far more one-sided; in Illinois, Republican Senate winner Mark Kirk benefited from $8 million more in outside money than his opponent, Alexander Giannoulias, who was targeted by American Crossroads, Crossoads GPS, and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, all funnels for corporate money.

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But the scariest part isn’t how much money was spent in this year’s election. It’s how much will be spent in elections to come as a political spending arms race escalates.

''This is the new normal,'' Joan Fitz-Gerald, president of America Votes, a group that coordinates advocacy by progressive organizations, told the Los Angeles Times. ''Whether we will have to do it in just the way [business groups] did, perhaps not. But we do need to squarely face reality.”

Speculation about what that new reality will look like has already begun. At a panel on the impact of Citizens United held by the Committee for Economic Development, Politico editor Jeannie Cummings argued that some businesses would become political forces independent of parties. She cited coal and ethanol as industries that could "take on both Democratic and Republican parties."

But will it get that far?

A growing backlash

Citizens United has been deeply unpopular since it was decided in January. Polls have found that 80 percent of Americans oppose it; upwards of 70 percent would like Congress to find a way to reinstate the campaign spending regulations that it invalidated. Ninety-two percent, according to a New York Times/CBS poll conducted last week, believe candidates should be legally required to disclose how much money they raise and where it comes from.

Even business leaders are worried about the new reality. A poll by Zogby International found that, of 300 business leaders surveyed, 60 percent felt pressured to contribute to politics. Two-thirds agreed with the statement, “the lack of transparency and oversight in corporate political activity encourages behavior that puts corporations at legal risk and endangers corporate reputations.”

Clean coal, illustration by Chris Clark
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Meanwhile, bipartisan citizens groups have been mobilizing to curb the impact of the ruling in a variety of ways, such as amending the Constitution to declare that corporations do not have the same right to free speech that humans do, requiring shareholders to approve companies’ political spending, and passing legislation like the DISCLOSE Act (which would require fuller disclosure of where political money originates) and the Fair Elections Now Act (which would provide federal funding for Congressional elections). Others are working to expand publicly financed elections, successful examples of which exist in Maine, Arizona, and Oregon.

So far, none of these ideas has gained the necessary traction to restrain the impact of Citizens United. But the overwhelming role of corporate campaign cash in Tuesday’s election may change that.

John McCain predicted a voter backlash against Citizens United once it became clear just how much money special interests would be able to pour into campaigns.

John McCain, whose famous bipartisan campaign finance reform bill was gutted by Citizens United, predicted a voter backlash against the ruling once it became clear just how much money special interests would be able to pour into campaigns. (Russ Feingold, the Democratic co-sponsor of the bill, lost his seat in the Senate on Tuesday after a campaign in which unregulated outside groups spent $3 million on his opponent’s behalf.)

As the nation undergoes a painful recession, the flood of corporate money looks all the more unfair. “We are saving more, trimming our budgets, and trying to make ends meet,” pointed out Joan Dowlin in the Huffington Post. “When we see such wild spending by big businesses, unions, and other special interest groups to try to influence our votes, we wonder where all this money is coming from. We wonder why they have the cash and we hard-working Americans don't.”

We wonder why our politicians support policies that benefit corporations instead of citizens. We wonder why big companies get bailed out, or why regulators look the other way. We wonder, and we wonder… and then we act.


Brooke JarvisBrooke Jarvis wrote this article for YES! Magazine, a national, nonprofit media organization that fuses powerful ideas with practical actions. Brooke is YES! Magazine's web editor. 

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