American Government for Sale?
Is money the only thing that matters in post-Citizens United American politics?
The New Yorker‘s Jane Mayer examines efforts to win one North Carolina state senate seat and concludes that money is all that matters in American politics.
Former Republican National Committee chairman Ed Gillespie headed up a project called REDMAP, the aim of which is to engineer GOP takeover of state legislatures in key battleground states in the 2010 elections ahead of Congressional redistricting. Teaming up with wealthy donors, he targeted key races with large expenditures.
That fall, in the remote western corner of the state, John Snow, a retired Democratic judge who had represented the district in the State Senate for three terms, found himself subjected to one political attack after another. Snow, who often voted with the Republicans, was considered one of the most conservative Democrats in the General Assembly, and his record reflected the views of his constituents. His Republican opponent, Jim Davis—an orthodontist loosely allied with the Tea Party—had minimal political experience, and Snow, a former college football star, was expected to be reëlected easily. Yet somehow Davis seemed to have almost unlimited money with which to assail Snow.
Snow recalls, “I voted to help build a pier with an aquarium on the coast, as did every other member of the North Carolina House and Senate who voted.” But a television attack ad presented the “luxury pier” as Snow’s wasteful scheme. “We’ve lost jobs,” an actress said in the ad. “John Snow’s solution for our economy? ‘Go fish!’ ” A mass mailing, decorated with a cartoon pig, denounced the pier as one of Snow’s “pork projects.” It criticized Snow for “wasting our tax dollars,” citing his vote to “spend $218,000 on a Shakespeare festival,” but failing to note that this sum represented a budget cut for the program, which had been funded by the legislature since 1999.
In all, Snow says, he was the target of two dozen mass mailings, one of them reminiscent of the Willie Horton ad that became notorious during the 1988 Presidential campaign. It featured a photograph of Henry Lee McCollum, a menacing-looking African-American convict on death row, who, along with three other men, raped and murdered an eleven-year-old girl. After describing McCollum’s crimes in lurid detail, the mailing noted, “Thanks to arrogant State Senator John Snow, McCollum could soon be let off of death row.” Snow, in fact, supported the death penalty and had prosecuted murder cases. But, in 2009, he had helped pass a new state law, the Racial Justice Act, that enabled judges to reconsider a death sentence if a convict could prove that the jury’s verdict had been tainted by racism. The law was an attempt to address the overwhelming racial disparity in capital sentences.
After the election, the North Carolina Free Enterprise Foundation, a nonpartisan, pro-business organization, revealed that two seemingly independent political groups had spent several hundred thousand dollars on ads against Snow—a huge amount in a poor, backwoods district. Art Pope [the chairman and C.E.O. of Variety Wholesalers, a discount-store conglomerate] was instrumental in funding and creating both groups, Real Jobs NC and Civitas Action. Real Jobs NC was responsible for the “Go fish!” ad and the mass mailing that attacked Snow’s “pork projects.” The racially charged ad was produced by the North Carolina Republican Party, and Pope says that he was not involved in its creation. But Pope and three members of his family gave the Davis campaign a four-thousand-dollar check each—the maximum individual donation allowed by state law.
Snow, whose defeat was first chronicled by the Institute for Southern Studies, a progressive nonprofit organization, told me, “It’s getting to the point where, in politics, money is the most important thing. They spent nearly a million dollars to win that seat. A lot of it was from corporations and outside groups related to Art Pope. He was their sugar daddy.”
Offering much less detail, she points to a couple other races in North Carolina that were similarly targeted an then tells us:
According to an analysis by the Institute for Southern Studies, of the twenty-two legislative races targeted by him, his family, and their organizations, the Republicans won eighteen, placing both chambers of the General Assembly firmly under Republican majorities for the first time since 1870. North Carolina’s Democrats in Congress hung on to power, but those in the state legislature, where Pope had focussed his spending, were routed.
The institute also found that three-quarters of the spending by independent groups in North Carolina’s 2010 state races came from accounts linked to Pope. The total amount that Pope, his family, and groups backed by him spent on the twenty-two races was $2.2 million—not that much, by national standards, but enough to exert crucial influence within the confines of one state. For example, as Gillespie had hoped, the REDMAP strategy worked: the Republicans in North Carolina’s General Assembly have redrafted congressional-district boundaries with an eye toward partisan advantage.
Experts predict that, next fall, the Republicans will likely take over at least four seats currently held by Democrats in the House of Representatives, helping the Party expand its majority in Congress. Meanwhile, the Republican leadership in the North Carolina General Assembly is raising issues that are sure to galvanize the conservative vote in the 2012 Presidential race, such as a constitutional ban on gay marriage.
Not surprisingly, Democrats are miffed and questioning how democratic such a process is. Pope dismisses this as nonsense.
Pope said that he was particularly affronted when “people throw around terms like ‘So-and-So tried to buy the election.’ ” In his view, such language evokes “images of actually bribing someone when they vote . . . or bribing a legislator after they’re elected. That’s illegal, that’s corrupt, and that’s something I’ve fought very hard against in North Carolina.” Pope sees himself as a reformer. The money that he spends on politics, he said, strengthens American democracy, by providing voters with more information and more choices: “Most of the efforts that I or my company have supported have been to get the message out on the issues, so that voters can make an informed choice.” He added, “To donate money, or make an independent expenditure to educate voters on the issues, or on voting records of the incumbents—I mean, it helps citizens make informed decisions! It’s the core of the First Amendment!” Asked whether candidates with the biggest budgets might drown out less wealthy candidates, he said, “I really have more faith in the North Carolina voters than that.”
Martin Nesbitt, Jr., the Democratic leader in the North Carolina Senate, says of Pope’s arguments, “Look at his ads and tell me what’s informative about them. They’re simply spewing right-wing stuff at voters, saying, ‘They raise taxes, they raise taxes, they raise taxes.’ ” Of Pope’s spending in 2010, he says, “It wasn’t an education; it was an onslaught. What he’s doing is buying elections.”
I’m somewhat skeptical of the “buying elections” charge. After all, very wealthy candidates have mostly failed spectacularly at getting themselves elected to statewide office. And I’ve certainly seen plenty of local races where candidates spend large sums of money on negative advertising only to have it backfire. Further, the notion that this somehow gives Republicans a major advantage is rather belied by the massive fundraising machine that Barack Obama assembled in 2008 and that looks on course to raise over a billion dollars this cycle.
Still, it’s quite troubling to see massive outside expenditures in local races. These contests have typically been under the radar of major media outlets even at the state level. Even people who follow politics closely know little about the candidates, typically relying on word of mouth, a vague sense of the incumbent’s reputation, and party ID. If one candidate is being bombarded with negative advertising and lacks the ability to get his message out, the playing field is far from level.
Stipulating that Mayer is sympathetic to Democrats and is telling only one side of the story in the Snow-Davis race, it certainly seems like a sad state of affairs. While I firmly believe that people like Pope have every right to participate in the political process and help candidates and parties of their own choosing, I also believe people have a duty to act honorably. While politics ain’t beanbag and a certain amount of hyperbole is part of the game, outright lies about someone’s record is beyond the pale.
It’s not at all clear what can be done about any of this. Mayer and the Democrats continually point to Citizens United and the ability of corporations to funnel unlimited funds into politics but that was preceded by nearly four decades of efforts to regulate the flow of money into politics failing miserably. Every attempt to limit donations and advertising was met with a creative exploitation of the law. If anything, the situation grew worse.
Given how enormously the national government and its regulatory apparatus impacts the daily lives of people, businesses, and organizations, it’s no wonder that there’s a race between various “special interests” to influence the rules in their favor. Nor, even absent Citizens United, do I see a way of stopping or limiting this race.
Capping the amount of money spent on any given race is not only technically unfeasible but an unfair advantage for incumbents and others with very high name recognition. Ditto various public financing and “free airtime” proposals. An equal playing field is not equal at all for those who start the race several lengths behind.
One idea that I find quite appealing is limiting contributions to a particular race to those who live within the boundaries represented by the office. It’s unseemly for those who live outside a state senate district to have an influence on the outcome of that race. Ditto US House and Senate races. But, even if this rule passes Constitutional muster, I haven’t the foggiest idea how it could be enforced.