David Frum

11.09.12

How Citizens United Hurt Republicans

Longtime reader "hisgirlfriday" on why opposition to SuperPACs should be part of GOP reform

There's been so much post-election analysis about how Republicans lost because they were too old or too white or too male or the Obama political team was too skilled a foe for the Republican Party to defeat. Sure, Matthew Dowd's whole "Mad Men" political party in a "Modern Family" electorate meme holds quite a bit of water. And yes, Team Obama is amazingly skilled and smart at the practice of politics and we now know that The Architect may now be better understood as The Charlatan.

But that doesn't tell the whole story of the Democratic Party's success and the Republican Party's failure on Tuesday night. One reason the Republicans failed was Citizens United. Yes, it's true that without that ruling, Republicans would not have done so well in 2010 to achieve their House Republican majority and set up the redistricting in state legislatures across the country that enabled the GOP to hang on to the House even as the Republican Party otherwise struggled on Tuesday. But there are some compelling reasons to view the advantages that ruling gave the GOP in 2010 as something of a monkey's paw. This goes beyond the most obvious example in that SuperPACs extended the Republican presidential primary and weakened the nominee in the general election this cycle.

Just look at the state of Montana, where against all odds, Jon Tester was re-elected to the United States Senate. Also in Montana, Democrats had a victor statewide in Steve Bullock, who succeeds outgoing Democratic governor Brian Schweitzer. How could this happen when Mitt Romney carried Montana easily, as Republicans have in every presidential election but two since 1948?

I would argue that one large factor of the success of Democrats in Montana (and also Heidi Heitkamp's narrow victory in North Dakota) was an old-fashioned prairie populist backlash against the flood of outside money injected into the heartland by outsiders since the "conservative" Supreme Court's mistaken Citizens United ruling birthed the SuperPAC era. Throughout the last year, a bipartisan majority of Montana citizens have been decrying the U.S. Supreme Court's rubber-stamp for secret mercenary political activity in the form of groups such as Western Tradition Partnership, as was featured recently in an outstanding PBS "Frontline" documentary.

To win re-election against the headwinds of a less-than-popular president in his state, Senator Jon Tester also had to contend with an influx of an estimated $16.5 million in outside money spent against him. But Tester managed to turn this avalanche of outside money to his advantage by portraying his opponent as a tool of outside, mysterious special interests while he was the one connected to the concerns of real, middle-class people, even at the same time he was benefitting from Dem-aligned SuperPACs, in a strategy replicated by many Democrats besieged by Republican SuperPACs across the country this cycle.

Meanwhile, the Democrat who won Montana's governor's race, Steve Bullock, also turned Citizens United to his political advantage after having represented Montana as attorney general when Montana's Supreme Court defied the U.S. Supreme Court on upholding the state's ban on corporate campaign expenditures. Bullock was charged with defending the people of Montana, who wanted to maintain their limits on corporate campaign expenditures that Montana has had since the days of the bad old Copper Kings of the early 20th century necessitated the direct election of U.S. senators in the first place. (Unfortunately Montana's calls for the Supreme Court to rethink Citizens United have fell on deaf ears thus far.)

The people of Montana who elected these Democrats at the same time they rejected a second Obama term were likely not endorsing the national Democratic Party's platform on social issues or moved by its diversity. The same Montana electorate that sent Jon Tester back to the Senate to bolster the Democratic Senate majority also passed referenda on Tuesday that 1) resoundingly rejected the health insurance mandate, 2) supported an abortion parental notification requirement, and 3) opposed state-funded services to illegal aliens. But where Democrats found a way to connect with this Montana electorate on a populist basis was in Initiative 161, which Montana's voters overwhelmingly supported to register their displeasure with the current campaign finance regime by declaring that corporations are not human beings with constitutional rights and calling for the reinstatement of Montana's limits on corporate campaign contributions and expenditures. A similar measure was also on the ballot in Colorado on Tuesday, and like in Montana, the measure passed with more than 70 percent of the vote. So in both of these states, even Republican voters expressed a desire for legislative action to address the effects of Citizens United on our politics, even though there is no Republican movement to support this effort.

It's a shame that this is even a partisan issue, but the Republican Party being so reliant on SuperPACs in the Obama era has made this so. That said, there is something deliciously ironic in the fact that the rise of the SuperPACs meddling in Republican primaries or otherwise tarnishing the Republican nominees the last two cycles has possibly cost Mitch McConnell a Senate majority, given that McConnell has been the biggest obstacle of campaign finance reform efforts in Congress and the biggest champion of First Amendment lawsuit challenges to campaign finance limits over the past 20 years.

And while the Koch Brothers and Sheldon Adelson may just be exercising their rights as citizens (or at least their rights as understood by the current Supreme Court) with their political financing activities, it seems to me that the reliance on SuperPACs as a shadow, for-profit Republican Party has minimized the Republican aspirants in many contests into nothing more than pawns for outside agendas with little connection to local concerns and the people they are supposed to represent. Taking this money allows Republicans to be, at the very least, more easily caricatured as the tools of the wealthy under current Democratic frames of Republicans being for the 1 percent and not concerned with the middle class. At worst, taking this money may require them actually becoming tools of wealthy eccentrics disconnected from the public at large. The SuperPAC-reliant GOP gives a few particular activists outsized influence as wannabe political fixers, who have in many ways replaced the role that the political party used to play.

I would argue that you can see this effect in both California and Illinois where record amounts of money were spent on behalf of Republican candidates this year and yet the GOP congressional delegation faced a huge bloodbath in both states. In addition, both state legislatures wound up with Democratic supermajorities in their state senates, at the same time Democrats are either proposing or have just passed large tax increases. Why do Californians and Illinoisans choose one-party rule in this scenario? Because Republicans offer these voters nothing but a Grover Norquist pledge and in 2012 that's just not good enough when the national Republican Party brand is so toxic and foreign, and the state Republican Party infrastructure so non-existent that gobs of SuperPAC money is all Republicans have to compete there. Yes, Citizens United weakens political parties, or at least it has weakened the Republican Party, and this is a bad thing, even in my opinion as a Democrat.

Because as much as people decry partisanship and party labels, there is something to be said for an organized, coherent and transparent political affiliation. Political parties do more than just make it easier for candidates to pool resources to gather votes and identify likely electoral supporters. Strong, unified political parties also make it possible to establish broad governing coalitions, which can accomplish legislation either by outmaneuvering and defeating the other side politically or through negotiation and compromise with the other party. Political parties also foster political trust and unity on a grassroots level by forcing people to engage in politics face-to-face, neighbor-to-neighbor, rather than wage politics via anonymous campaign commercial or Internet message board or right-wing talk radio call-in show such that candidates and parties can actually and more immediately be held accountable for their votes and their positions by their fellow citizens, hear the voices of others, and moderate their positions as necessary. If money is so easily had by the candidates post-Citizens United that they don't actually have to build a broad base of support to acquire the financing necessary to compete but instead can simply call on the support of a single or small number of rich supporters, the political party loses and the SuperPAC industry wins.

And just who benefits from the era of the SuperPAC, politics-as-big-business era? Well the D.C. political consultant class, of course. The group of folks who think elections are ultimately won and lost because of the power of Frank Luntz's focus group-tested talking point vocabulary words like "job creators." The sort of consultants who produce cookie-cutter campaign ads and think voters' concerns about House Republicans imposing drastic Medicare changes they've already voted for can be wiped away by running a 30-second spot with a GOP candidate's elderly mother in every swing district in the country. The sort of consultants who work for and support and do not restrain candidates who do and say outrageous things knowing that they can raise money off the negative mainstream media attention and still make money, perhaps even more money, even if they lose election by finding work somewhere else within the right-wing entertainment-industrial complex. The sort of consultants who know that it's bad for their own profit margins if reform-minded Republicans make a stand for campaign finance sanity and support a bipartisan challenge against Citizens United and its impact on our political process.

Reform-minded Republicans should kick these greedy consultants and SuperPAC sugar daddies to the curb and make a stand by championing legislative efforts to address the effects of Citizens United. Not only is opposing massive, secret campaign donations the right thing to do for our democracy; it's also really popular with voters as the ballot initiatives in Colorado and Montana this cycle show. Not to mention that this cycle showed that when Democrats actually come to play, Democrats can beat Republicans at the SuperPAC game just as well or better than they could under the old pre-Citizens United McCain-Feingold regime. So there's really no reason to not do the right thing at this point.

-"hisgirlfriday" is a former poster at this blog's predecessor, FrumForum, and though sometimes critical of Mr. Frum, is extremely thankful for the opportunity to contribute to the discussion of reforming the Republican Party, a party that she wishes to see redeemed if only for her deep, abiding love for Abraham Lincoln. She can also be found at talkradiosucks.com.