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Will Stealth Spending Decide the 2012 GOP Presidential Primaries?

4 years ago
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After a GOP wave election that put the "tsu" in tsunami, Republicans have reason to feel smug as they look toward 2012. High on the GOP's gloating list is the way that wealthy conservatives and right-wing business groups exploited the new permissive fundraising environment created by the Supreme Court's Citizens United decision.
Heavy late spending on behalf of Republicans by independent groups that do not legally have to reveal their donors -- like the Chamber of Commerce and Karl Rove's Crossroads GPS -- probably made a difference in more than a dozen House races. These conservative groups spent more than $100 million more than their liberal counterparts (mostly unions like the SEIU and AFSCME), according to preliminary calculations by the Center for Responsive Politics. Unshackled by Citizens United (which overturned a century of restrictions on corporate political spending) and emboldened by other creative legal loopholes, companies and mega-rich individuals reveled in their stealth electoral power.
This was invisible-hand politics at its most insidious -- voters saw the attack ads but had no idea who was paying for them. The American Future Fund, which spent at least $10 million on the 2010 elections, was traced by the New York Times to a rented mail box in an Iowa UPS store and linked to ethanol interests. "This was our first secret election since the Watergate scandal," said Arn Pearson, a vice president of Common Cause, at a recent conference sponsored by the campaign reform group. "It was the first election since 1907 where corporations and unions were able to do unlimited spending to affect the outcome."
Republicans will get about as weepy at this lament as they did at the news that Nancy Pelosi lost her military jet. The dominant belief in the GOP for years has been that all forms of campaign reform represent a Democratic plot wrapped up in good-government rhetoric to erase the Republicans' natural financial advantage from the business community. Twice this year, a modest disclosure bill (requiring independent groups running TV political ads to reveal their donors) died in the face of a united GOP Senate filibuster. The legislation -- which has virtually no chance of being revived in the lame-duck session, let alone in the next Congress -- would also have required the head of the organization to make an "I'm Daddy Warbucks and I approve this message" declaration at the end of each campaign spot.
What congressional inaction means is that the theme song of the 2012 presidential campaign will be Cole Porter's "Anything Goes." Already, the Democrats are laying the groundwork for a new alms (not arms) race in which fundraising by shadowy liberal groups will match spending by subterranean conservative outfits. For every set of billionaire Koch brothers for the Republicans, the Democrats can counter with the likes of George Soros. The result will be the political version of Cold War overkill with both sides bristling with vast arsenals of negative ads, a thousand points of blight.
Here is a wrinkle that might arouse Republicans out of their what-me-worry complacency about the new mostly unregulated free market in political spending. Without disclosure laws, the next major battleground for anonymous political attack ads will be the 2012 GOP presidential primaries. It is easy to concoct scenarios under which a leading Republican presidential contender loses the nomination because of a $30 million burst of negative commercials secretly paid for by -- who knows? -- the Democrats or a diabolical corporation or an eccentric billionaire who wants the "Beer Barrel Polka" to replace "Hail to the Chief."
This notion might seem outlandish because historically the financing of presidential primary campaigns has been remarkably aboveboard compared to the muck of the rest of contemporary politics. (Just to be clear – the attacks on John Kerry in 2004 by the Swift Boat Veterans were launched only after he became the de facto Democratic nominee). Aside from a few partial self-funders like Mitt Romney ($45 million of his own money in 2008), candidates in past primaries have raised money the old-fashioned way: one individual donor at a time with all contributions above $200 made public by the Federal Election Commission. The few aberrations from this pattern stand out in memory -- particularly, avid George W. Bush supporters Charles and Sam Wyly who created a front organization called Republicans for Clean Air to run $2 million in negative spots against John McCain before major 2000 GOP primaries.
Sadly, the wily Wyly brothers were visionaries ahead of their time. During the coming race for the 2012 GOP nomination, the candidates' own commercials may be drowned out by a cacophony of 30 second smack-down ads paid for by mysterious groups with impossible-to-decipher names like the Glorious Beyond Belief American Future Fund and Citizens for Everyone To Be As Rich As We Are. The hidden funding might come (hypothetically) from business groups that tangled with Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour when he was a Washington lobbyist, or Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels when he was George W. Bush's budget director. Anyone prominent enough to run for president has made important enemies somewhere along the way -- and the porous campaign laws provide ample opportunity for monied interests to get even without leaving fingerprints.
It may seem ridiculously premature to worry about the fairness of the 2012 Republican primaries when the votes are still being counted in the 2010 Alaska Senate race. But the history of presidential nomination fights underscores that almost no one worries about the integrity of the process until it is too late -- and then suddenly the entire political world is belatedly obsessed with Democratic super-delegates or why the 2008 Michigan and Florida primaries did not really count.
So remember this warning (and the GOP filibuster that killed the disclosure bill) when conservative voters in early 2012 work themselves up into a conspiratorial lather over whether -- just maybe -- Democrats like George Soros are secretly intervening in the GOP presidential primaries.

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