Books

06.09.14

Speed Read: Kenneth Vogel’s ‘Big Money’ Shows How PACs Control Politics

Read highlights of Kenneth Vogel’s Big Money, an exhaustive look at how PACS influenced the 2012 elections—and wreaked endless mischief, especially for the GOP.

The amount of money spent keeping Washington looking pretty much the same in 2012 was staggering—roughly $2.5 billion by outside groups and $1.6 billion by the political parties—more than the GDP’s on a couple dozen nations.

Anything involving that obscene level of cash will definitely have juicy stories behind it. Those stories, and how they unfolded in both political parties, is the subject of a new book from Politico reporter Kenneth Vogel, Big Money: 2.5 Billion Dollars, One Suspicious Vehicle, and a Pimp—on the Trail of the Ultra-Rich Hijacking American Politics.

Here are the juiciest bits of this lurid tale about the purchase of the nation’s highest offices.

Donors are, quite frankly, childish.

On both sides of the aisle, big-dollar donors are a who’s-who of industry and finance. And yet, for all that business acumen, the book documents just how naïve and ignorant many of them are when it comes to the political game.

In fact, their approach to politics is so emotional that the author bitingly compares their methods to “the Washington cabbie whose radio is glued to NPR, or the uncle at Thanksgiving dinner who can’t stop quoting Bill O’Reilly.”

Donors also apparently have a lot in common with kindergarteners who need to be bribed into napping. For example, Vogel reports that based on the amount of their contributions, Romney campaign donors reached levels like “Founding Partners,” “Founding Members,” and, you guessed it, “Stripes” and then “Stars.” To go with the different levels, they got swag (from Vineyard Vines, of course), trips with the campaign, and invites to parties at the convention.

And if that wasn’t enough, the author once overheard the best piece of advice from handler to donor: “My advice to donors: throw a fit. You’ll get whatever you want.”

There are cringe-inducing moments. One donor complains about the takeout chicken pot pies served at a Karl Rove-hosted confab. The security guy who throws Vogel out of a Democratic fundraiser has resigned from the police force for running a prostitution ring from his car while on the clock.

Recently deceased Dallas billionaire Harold Simmons made news for his seven-figure checks to 2012 flameout Rick Perry, but his less-famous wife found herself interested more and more in the message Rick Santorum was promoting. She decided that the best way to figure out whether she actually liked him was to call Karl Rove to find out “Does he have a chance?” Apparently the words “I wouldn’t count him out” from Rove were worth a $1 million to a Santorum Super PAC.

Some saw their donation as a ticket to a theme park roller coaster ride. Foster Freiss, the multi-millionaire who funded Rick Santorum’s run, got a thrill from going on the trail with the former Pennsylvania senator. The author describes it as his self-funded “political fantasy camp.” Freiss became famous for his quip about birth control that “Back in my days, they used Bayer aspirin for contraceptives. The gals put it between their knees and it wasn’t that costly.” And while that remark hurt Santorum, Freiss told Vogel, “All my older friends—the people who weren’t in D.C. or San Francisco—they gave me high-fives and chuckled and thought it was a great joke.”

The end result, was that while many of these men and women—mostly men—pouring in gargantuan gobs of money kept up to date on politics, they were in many ways ignorant and “didn’t know whose advice was solid and who was merely calculating profit margins.”

Boy, were those profit margins big.

About the only group that looks smart in the book are political consultants, who made out like bandits in the election. It should be noted, in fairness, that many work 20-hour days, seven days a week for two years for a campaign.

Big Money by Kenneth P. Vogel

Most made their money through commission-based contracts on television advertisement buys, direct mail, and fund-raising. Basically the consultants and their companies got a cut, sometimes as high as 15 percent, of whatever was raised or spent. And as any resident of Florida, Colorado, or Ohio can attest, there was no shortage of ads or direct mail.

One consultant in Koch brothers universe, Sean Noble, reportedly earned $5.3 million in that election cycle, certainly much better than the $160,000 a year congressional chief of staff job he left in 2008.

One Republican firm, run by Michael Dubke, called Crossroads Media, reportedly collected $248 million in payments for the 2012 cycle. Another firm, founded by Alex Gage (husband of Romney deputy campaign manager Katie Packer Gage), called TargetPoint, got $5.1 million in payments from the campaign. Another, founded by Katie Packer Gage herself, WWP Strategies, pulled in $5.5 million that election. These groups were all based in the same building, 66 Canal Center, Alexandria, Virginia. Another firm in that building was Tony Feather’s FLS Connect, which brought in $68 million. Vogel reports that Zac Moffatt, the former digital director for Mitt Romney, had a firm, Targeted Victory, with Feather and Carl Forti that sucked up $114 million.

There is so much drama on the GOP side.

What becomes apparent pretty quickly is that with all that money on the Republican side, things inevitably become more about who has access to it, rather than winning races.

That issue, combined with a generally more fractured party ideologically, left the GOP exceptionally prone to outright civil war between Super PACs. On the GOP side, everybody wanted their own shiny Super PAC. Petulant billionaires singlehandedly funded rivals to Mitt Romney. Speaker John Boehner and Majority Leader Eric Cantor each had their own Super PAC. Lowly freshman congressmen could now buck the speaker, as one rich guy could fund their next campaign. The Republican National Committee lost control over the party messaging and finances. Candidates made pilgrimages to billionaire Sheldon Adelson, and not state party chairs, seeking his endorsement and open wallet.

The Koch groups, notably Americans for Prosperity, which dropped $179 million, would give presentations after the 2012 election debacle that left little doubt about how it saw itself as a rival to the Karl Rove-operated American Crossroads. Rove, of course, would make headlines for his Conservative Victory Project, which was seen as a rejoinder by establishment Republicans to keep “unelectable” conservatives out of the primaries.

The net effect, notes Vogel, was that in the Super PACs attempts to take control of the party, “there was a very real possibility that they would instead cancel each other out” and leave the Democrats in power.

Democrats were both a joke, and a model.

The Democrats, on the other hand, started out as a laughingstock. Their president was famous for ridiculous big money in politics. The two aides delegated to launch a pro-Obama Super PAC seemed to get their jobs almost by accident. And the hired gun they brought in, Paul Begala, admits to the author, “This is the first time I’ve ever raised money.”

As the election progresses, however, the Dems not only managed to raise money, but their game plan was far more effectively businesslike, in all likelihood because of the lack of rival PACs.

Dems have their own big money, too.

While not as significant, progressives have their own “Kochtopus” known as the Democracy Alliance. It has put roughly $500 million into liberal causes since 2005, and is a vital source of cash for prominent politicians like Elizabeth Warren, Nancy Pelosi, and even President Obama. They hold secretive, no-press-allowed confabs and retreats much like their conservative foils, and politicians and consultants come calling looking for cash.

Among the more prominent members, featured throughout the book, were Houston trial lawyers Steve and Amber Mostyn, who gave millions to Super PACs supporting Democrats in 2012.

The Kochs were NOT Republicans.

At least part of the mayhem on the Republican side stems from the Koch brothers and their outfits seeing themselves both today and historically as something separate from the Republican Party. It wasn’t until August 2012, Vogel writes, that Americans for Prosperity, the Koch-backed political group, gathered its directors and voted to openly oppose the reelection of Barack Obama. Some AFP members Vogel talked to were shocked by how close that move aligned them with the GOP, unlike the rest of the country bombarded with their anti-Obamacare ads.

Part of the reason is historical. The Kochs for decades were Libertarians, and focused more on think tanks and political groups that promoted that ideology. They generally stayed away from social issues (which became public when David Koch admitted he was in favor of gay marriage), and were not in favor of the neoconservative version of foreign policy. “They wouldn’t come near the Republican side,” disgraced former super-lobbyist Jack Abramoff tells Vogel.

On the left, there were former deputy press secretary Bill Burton and White House staffer Sean Sweeney who started the Super PAC Priorities USA. Vogel describes them in a starkly less exciting way as getting the job “mostly because they were the only ones who expressed interest.”