Democrats and their allies face a tricky problem in the wake of a midterm defined by big money: Should they keep bashing interest group cash, or fight fire with fire?
By now the story of outside money in this election is well known: Conservative activist groups, buoyed by a landmark Supreme Court ruling and by fired-up donors, vastly outspent liberal and labor players. (People love to quibble over the bottom line, but in one category – independent campaign expenditures – the numbers clearly show a conservative advantage of more than two to one.)
Liberal donors, in the meantime, scared off in part by President Obama’s warning to stay away from funny money, largely sat on their hands. A handful of new Democrat-friendly groups jumped in at the last minute, but it was too little, too late. Having deliberately set out to copy the liberal playbook that had swept Democrats to power, conservative organizers proved that turnabout is fair play.
So now what? Some on the Left say progressives should adapt to political realities and fight back hard. The Supreme Court’s Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission ruling that freed up corporate and union campaign spending is here to stay, argued Joan Fitz-Gerald, president of the liberal umbrella group America Votes.
“We shouldn’t let the conservative groups determine and put a frame around the issues that we care about,” said Fitz-Gerald. She added: “I think we have to be a lot more aggressive about presenting our side of issues.”
Fitz-Gerald has good reason to be worried. The top outside spender in this midterm – the conservative operation that houses American Crossroads and a partner nonprofit known as Crossroads GPS – still has plenty of cash leftover.
The Crossroads groups pulled in more than $71 million, organizers say – far beyond its original $50 million target -- but reported only $38.7 million in independent campaign expenditures. Even accounting for some overhead, that still leaves potentially tens of millions leftover for pending policy fights over taxes, health care and climate issues, not to mention the 2012 presidential race.
“We’re already focusing very intently on the government-expanding agenda of President Obama and the Democratic Congress,” said American Crossroads president and CEO Steven Law at a post-election briefing.
Law called the assault on secret corporate money by President Obama and congressional Democrats “a real strategic mistake.” Democratic attacks on the Citizens United ruling and on conservative outside money “at best made them look seriously out of touch, and at worst made them look like politicians,” Law said.
Polls paint a muddy picture of what voters thought of such attacks. On the one hand, more voters heard about California’s proposition to legalize marijuana than about the issue of anonymous campaign spending, according to the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press. On the other, numerous polls show that voters deplore the Citizens United ruling, think money plays too great a role in politics, and want to know who’s paying for campaign ads.
The problem with the Democrats’ anti-money message wasn’t that voters don’t care, said reform advocate David Donnelly, but that it was driven by politics and not by substance. Democratic leaders must go beyond tarring their opponents, he said, and push concrete solutions – such as the DISCLOSE Act, which passed the House but not the Senate earlier this year, and legislation to publicly finance campaigns.
“They should have embraced a broad indictment of the current system, not just an indictment of their political opponents,” said Donnelly, the national campaigns director for the Public Campaign Action Fund. Donnelly and other reform advocates are already pushing for votes on the DISCLOSE Act, possibly in stripped-down form, and on a House public financing bill, during this lame duck session.
Progressive outside groups debating the next step should resist the temptation to emulate conservatives by flocking to 501(c)4 nonprofits, which operate in virtual total secrecy, Donnelly said. Reform advocates and congressional Democrats have called on the IRS and the FEC to investigate several politically active conservative nonprofits that they allege are skirting the tax and campaign finance laws.
“Our advice is not to go down the road of setting up a lot of 501(c)4s that lose the moral high ground with a lot of these Republican groups,” Donnelly said.
Some progressive outside groups are avoiding the secrecy problem by setting up so-called Super PACs. Under the new rules, such PACs may spend unlimited corporate and union money on campaigns, as long as they report to the FEC and don’t coordinate with candidates or parties. New Democrat-friendly Super PACs include the America’s Families First Action Fund, which raised and spent close to $6 million since opening its doors in mid-August, and Commonsense Ten, which spent $3.3 million.
“We have always been outspent by the Right, always,” said America’s Families First Action Fund spokeswoman Ramona Oliver. “And we have found ways to work smarter, to utilize technology, to utilize the grassroots strengths that Democrats bring to the table.” Still, Oliver acknowledged that progressives will be exchanging “a lot of theories and concepts and – unfortunately – a lot of finger pointing” as they ponder what comes next.