Money is flooding into political elections at an unprecedented rate, giving an enormous amount of influence to wealthy interests in our country. For decades special interest groups have spent millions trying to influence policy by directly lobbying members of Congress, but in issues that voters feel strongly about, members of Congress generally have sided with the voters, since they ultimately want to keep their jobs through reelection. However, because of the 2010 Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission Supreme Court decision that equated money with free speech, wealthy individuals, corporations and labor unions can now contribute as much money as they please in order to help elect candidates that share their views. Essentially, if you can’t bribe a politician, you can now just buy a new one.
This huge increase in the influence of money in our elections comes from creation of super PACs. Unlike traditional Political Action Committees, which have limits on donation amounts, the new super PACs that were born out of the 2010 Citizens United court case have no such restrictions. Whereas a contribution to a politician’s campaign can’t exceed $2,500, a donation to a super PAC that prefers the same candidate is unlimited. This means that money can flex its muscles in elections like never before.
If you are concerned about the power of the few exerting themselves over the will of the many, the development of super PACs should disturb you. Before, limits on donations ensured that candidates needed a very large number of individual donors in order to fund their campaigns. Now, super PACs can court just a handful of incredibly wealthy donors for the same amount of money. The result has been a gold mine for Republicans. According to ABC News, in 2011 48 percent of Obama’s $118 million in campaign donations came from individuals that gave $200 or less. For Romney, only 9 percent of his donations came from donors that gave $200 or less. Meanwhile, a small group of incredibly wealthy Republicans were lining up to give hundreds of millions of dollars to pro-Republican super PACs that would support Romney and other Republican candidates. In fact, fully 21 of the 24 largest super PAC donors are giving their money to pro-Republican super PACs, according to National Public Radio.
Two of those wealthy Republicans, the billionaire oil magnate Koch brothers, have reportedly committed $200 million to the pro-Republican super PAC Americans for Prosperity. Another top super PAC contributor, Sheldon Anderson, has already given $15 million to pro-Gingrich super PACs even though he is philosophically opposed to unlimited campaign contributions, stating: “I’m against very wealthy people attempting to [influence] or influencing elections but as long as it’s doable I’m going to do it.” Whereas, before, Gingrich would have had to find 6,000 individual donors to equal $15 million for his campaign, he can now count on one single individual to cough up that same amount to the super PAC that supports him.
During the 2010 midterm elections, super PACs were less than a year old, but their effects on elections were already being felt. In California’s 3rd District, Republican Congressman Dan Lungren faced a stiff challenge from Democrat Ami Bera, who had gone from 30 percentage points down to cut Lungren’s lead to a mere 8 percentage points. However, in the second-to-last week before the election, Bera was thrown a curveball. American Crossroads, a conservative super PAC founded by former Bush advisor and part-time evil genius Karl Rove, swooped in with a huge $682,000 ad buy that increased Lungren’s spending by 30 percent in a single day. The money went to a political attack ad against Bera that ran for a week straight, with the average television viewer seeing the ad 16 times. By the end of the week, Lungren had regained a 14 percent lead in the polls, ensuring his reelection (“Take the Money and Run For Office”, NPR).
When American Crossroads realized that their Republican seat was in danger, they just tossed some cash Lungren’s way from their vast resources and obliterated his opponent. For American Crossroads, that $682,000 that heavily influenced a small congressional election was chump change; they had $37 million in their coffers in 2010, and according to ABC News, they’ve already raised $51 million in 2011. By the 2012 elections in November, American Crossroads is projected to have raised over $240 million to spend on ensuring that the candidates it prefers are elected. According to the Washington Post, American Crossroads has already spent over $11 million on TV ads this year — 100 percent of which have been negative attack ads against opposing candidates. With the emergence of super PACs like American Crossroads, the story of Ami Bera and Dan Lungren is sadly going to become the norm in American elections. Once that happens, a handful of wealthy individuals will be significantly influencing the representation of our government, and the “great experiment” of American democracy will have given way to oligarchy.
— Daily Nexus columnist Riley Schenck