Nov 7 (Reuters) - 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.
(Reporting by Alison Frankel)
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