Election results raise questions about impact of Citizens United

By Alison Frankel
November 8, 2012

Fewer than one million people live in the great state of Montana, where per capita income in 2010 was less than $25,000. Now try to guess how much money Super PACs and politically involved non-profits spent on the race for a U.S. Senate seat in Montana in the 2012 election cycle. Would you believe $25 million? According to the most recent data assembled by The Center for Public Integrity, Republican challenger Denny Rheberg attracted $11.9 million in outside spending on his campaign, slightly less than the $12.8 million in outside money that went to the Democratic incumbent, Jon Tester. Do the math: That’s more than $25 per voter, in an outlay that significantly added to Montana’s bottom line. In neighboring North Dakota, population 684,000, candidates Heidi Heitkamp (Democrat) and Rick Berg (Republican) attracted $16 million in outside spending in their race to fill an open Senate seat.

Both races were squeakers, but as of Wednesday afternoon, both Tester and Heitkamp appear to have won Senate seats, providing two more important data points along the trend line that’s emerging from the 2012 campaign results: Despite the U.S. Supreme Court’s unleashing of corporate campaign spending in its 2010 ruling in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, big business does not seem to be able to buy elections. That conclusion contradicts the doomsday predictions that followed Citizens United and the 2010 campaign cycle.

The number crunching has only just begun, but Public Integrity tracked results in the Senate and House races that attracted the most outside spending from Super PACs and non-profits. In most of the contests, Democrats matched Republicans in outside spending, which suggests that business groups aren’t the only special interests engaged in serious campaign contributions. That’s good news for anyone concerned about the influence of big business on political campaigns. Here’s more: According to Public Integrity’s early data, there isn’t a clear correlation between outside spending and election results. In the Florida Senate campaign, for instance, Republican challenger Connie Mack attracted vastly more outside money ($15.2 million) than Democratic incumbent Bill Nelson ($4.8 million), in one of the few lopsided contests for outside dollars on the Public Integrity list. Yet for all his outside support, Mack lost. In another relatively lopsided contest, the Illinois congressional candidate Judy Biggart, a Republican, received $4.7 million in outside support, compared to the $2.5 million incumbent Bill Foster received. But Foster won the seat.

“In a lot of races big money interests threw a lot of money at campaigns and lost,” said Michael Beckel of Public Integrity. Added Allen Dickerson, legal director of the pro-business Center for Competitive Politics: “The major takeaway is that voters are still sovereign. The fact that you can spend money to get your message out doesn’t mean that people will like your message.”

It’s a strange, twisty world when the legal director of a pro-business group can point to big business’s defeats in the 2012 elections to defend Citizens United and the idea of corporate campaign spending, but that’s what’s happening. Folks like Dickerson can now argue, as he does, that people are not sheep who can be herded to support a particular candidate by lavish television ads funded by Super PACs and trade associations. Opponents of corporate campaign spending, meanwhile, have had to refine their Citizens United arguments to account for the relative failure of big business in the 2012 elections to win seats for its chosen candidates with the help of outside spending.

Don’t worry, though. By Wednesday morning, when I spoke with them, both Bruce Freed of the Center for Political Accountability and Melanie Sloan of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington were already primed to explain why corporate campaign spending remains a pernicious phenomenon, despite big-business defeats in this election cycle. Freed, whose bugaboo is undisclosed corporate spending via trade groups and non-profits, said the long-term effect of such political activity outlasts the results of one particular election. Sloan focused on the vast expenditures by both sides, arguing that in the new status quo, candidates don’t just have to worry about filling their own campaign war chests with direct contributions but have to be concerned with attracting outside money as well.

“Money alone will never win the day,” she said. “But what we have is an arms race, mutually assured destruction. You can’t not raise money.”

That point brings me back to the huge money outside groups contributed to the North Dakota and Montana Senate campaigns. Spending was symmetrical, with Democratic groups countering pro-business Republicans almost dollar for dollar. But there were an awful lot of dollars involved. And as Beckel of Public Integrity pointed out, whatever time senators and congressmen devote to courting outside campaign groups is time they’re not spending on actual issues. “As a lawmaker, you have to be looking over your shoulder all the time,” Beckel said.

That’s going to continue, even if donors to groups like Karl Rove’s Crossroads GPS think twice about giving in the wake of the disappointing return on their investment in the 2012 elections. Both Sloan of CREW and Dickerson of the Center for Competitive Politics predicted that Super PACs and politically active non-profits are here to stay, despite their defeats in 2012. “The desire of people to spend independently of political parties is not going away,” said Dickerson.

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