Five years after the Supreme Court's Citizens United decision helped unleash unprecedented amounts of outside spending in U.S. elections, a coalition of major pro-democracy groups came together for the first time on Wednesday to release eight separate reports examining outsized corporate influence, the proliferation of dark money, and the corrupting role of money in politics.
"There’s no denying it," the clean elections group Public Campaign declared. "Big money in elections is getting bigger and the increased cost of elections is fueled by a shrinking handful of America’s wealthiest individuals."
Ian Vandewalker, who authored the Brennan Center for Justice's report, said: "The post-Citizens United numbers paint a daunting picture: Outside money driven mostly by a few wealthy donors now surpasses even spending by candidates themselves in tight races, giving those donors a level of election influence unprecedented in modern American history. At the same time, the rise of dark-money and single-candidate groups threaten two longstanding cornerstones of money in politics regulation, transparency and contribution limits. Congress, the president, and federal agencies all should seize opportunities to make reforms improving transparency and boosting the power of small donors."
The research was presented at a symposium in Washington, D.C. on Wednesday, 'Five Years After Citizens United: A Joint Research Release.'
1. Common Cause: "Whose Government? Whose Voice?"
Citizens United and other recent court decisions have "opened the floodgates to big money influence in our democracy, giving special interests and the wealthy more control over our government and economy than they’ve enjoyed since the Gilded Age of the late 19th century," reads the report (pdf) from Boston-based Common Cause.
In particular, the Common Cause study looks at five key issue areas—stagnant wages, gun control, climate change, student debt, and net neutrality—where "unfettered political spending and influence have blocked progress on solutions that large, bipartisan majorities of Americans support."
According to Common Cause, Walmart alone and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce spent $14.8 million and $35 million respectively in 2014 advocating against raising the minimum wage, even while 70 percent of Americans support a national increase. The NRA spent more than $31.4 million in the last election cycle to drive off gun control reforms, even as 90 percent of citizens have expressed support for background checks. Similar data revealed that big money from the energy sector, major banks, and telecom industry have respectively blocked action on reducing carbon emissions, establishing refinancing plans for student debt relief, and efforts to keep the internet open for everyone.
2. Brennan Center for Justice: "Election Spending 2014: Outside Spending in Senate Races Since ‘Citizens United’"
Since 2010, outside spending on Senate elections has more than doubled, from $220 million that year to $486 million in 2014, Brennan Center report (pdf) reveals. On top of that, so called 'dark money'—shadowy funding from undisclosed donors—has more than doubled since 2010, the year the Citizens United decision came down.
"The story that emerges is that outside spending has exploded in the last three federal elections and is highly focused on competitive races," the analysis reads. "In 80 percent of competitive 2014 races, outside spenders outspent the candidates—sometimes by more than double. Because outside groups like super PACs and political nonprofits can take contributions of unlimited size, the increasing dominance of outside money is giving the wealthiest few Americans more and more control over the political process."
The Brennan Center's report also shows that 2014’s 11 competitive Senate races saw 16 candidate-specific groups spend more than $1 million each, more than double the number in 2012. These groups depend heavily on donors who have given up to the legal limit of $2,600 directly to their chosen candidate.
"These organizations take unlimited donations and spend the money exclusively in support of one candidate, making a mockery of longstanding contribution limits that guard against the danger of corruption through large contributions," the report charges.
3. Public Campaign: "Small Donor Solutions for Big Money: The 2014 Elections and Beyond"
"There’s some good news," the Public Campaign report (pdf) insists, turning its focus on state-level, broad 'clean elections' models that are still drawing in hundreds of candidates.
The non-profit's analysis looks at three states—Arizona, Connecticut, and Maine—that currently offer grants to candidates who raise a minimum number of small, local donations. Nearly 300 officials elected in those states this fall benefited from such programs, with Connecticut leading the way.
In fact, the report says, "[s]ince 2010, Connecticut candidates have reduced their financial reliance on the wealthiest zip codes in the state and increased their reliance on donations from middle and low income areas."
4. The Center for Media and Democracy: "The Assault on Clean Election Laws: The Well-Funded Campaign to Legalize Coordination in Wisconsin and Nationwide"
The Center's report (pdf) zooms in even more, to examine how "[a] legitimate bipartisan effort to enforce Wisconsin’s long-standing campaign finance laws has been contorted beyond recognition into a 'partisan witch hunt' by a well-funded legal and media campaign."
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The analysis reads:
For over two years, Republican and Democratic prosecutors in Wisconsin have been part of a criminal investigation into whether Governor Scott Walker’s campaign coordinated with “independent” electoral groups, particularly Wisconsin Club for Growth, which spent $9.1 million on the recall elections and funneled millions more to other groups, and which is led by top Walker campaign advisor and friend, R.J. Johnson.
Yet, the groups under investigation have fought back. Hard.
Thanks to a growing network of right-wing "news" outlets with financial ties to the groups facing criminal liability, heavy-hitter Washington, D.C., attorneys filing a barrage of lawsuits, and ethically-challenged judges issuing ideological decisions despite clear conflicts-of-interests, they may have beaten back the investigation for good–and are now going after what remains of campaign finance laws.
This is about more than a particular politician: this torrent of cash to cover another torrent of cash matters because of the threat it poses to the future of a representative and transparent democracy, in Wisconsin and across the country.
"Proponents of more secret money in politics aim to use this case nationally to argue against common sense campaign laws designed to prevent corruption, and to intimidate regulators from enforcing the laws that remain on the books," said Lisa Graves, CMD’s executive director.
5. U.S. PIRG + Demos: "The Money Chase: Moving from Big Money Dominance in the 2014 Midterms to a Small Donor Democracy"
This study found that the top two vote-getters in the 25 most competitive districts in 2014 got 86 percent of their campaign cash from individuals giving $200 or more. Only two of the 50 candidates surveyed raised less than 70 percent of their individual contributions from big donors, and seven relied on big donors for more than 95 percent of their individual contributions.
In other words, said Dan Smith, democracy campaign director with U.S. PIRG: "[A] handful of deep-pocketed donors gets to determine who runs for office, what issues make it onto the agenda, and too frequently, who wins. Since most of us can’t afford to cut a thousand dollar check to candidates for elected office, we need to counter the outsized influence of mega-donors by amplifying the voices of small donors."
"The Money Chase" reveals that the 50 candidates in the 25 most competitive districts (according to Cook Political Report PVI ratings) overwhelmingly relied on large contributions to bankroll their campaigns.
"But, it doesn’t have to be this way," Demos notes. "As part of our examination of losing yet viable candidates, we model how each of the candidates’ fundraising numbers could have changed under a federal campaign finance system that matches small contributions with limited public funds, using the proposed Government By the People Act for our estimates."
6. Public Citizen: "Super Connected (2014): Outside Electioneering Groups' Ties to Campaigns and Parties Discredit Key Assumption in Supreme Court’s Citizens United Decision"
Public Citizen's report (pdf) is the latest installment in a series the watchdog group began in October 2012 "critiquing the assumption by the U.S. Supreme Court in its landmark 2010 Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission decision that outside spending groups are by their nature independent of candidates and political parties."
In fact, "although outside groups may not legally coordinate with candidates, decisions by them to devote all of their resources to aiding a single congressional candidate strongly suggest that they are not truly independent," Public Citizen said in a press release. "Revelations of ties between many of the personnel behind the groups and the candidates they aided confirm those suspicions."
Taylor Lincoln, research director for Public Citizen’s Congress Watch division and co-author of the report, added: "The prevalence of single-candidate outside groups, often run by their friends and former consultants, further discredits the Supreme Court’s assumption that unregulated groups would operate independently of the people they support."
7. & 8. Demos: "Stacked Deck: How the Racial Bias in Our Big Money Political System Undermines Our Democracy and Our Economy" & Justice At Stake: "TV Ad Spending Reaches Nearly $14 Million in 2014 State Supreme Court Races"
Two additional reports, issued in December, were also presented at Wednesday's symposium.
The first (pdf), from Demos, "reveals how the distortions of money in politics also hold back the policies that would advance racial equity and fulfill the promise of a multiracial democracy. It finds that a campaign system dominated by a narrow set of donors who are overwhelmingly (at least 90 percent) white diminishes the importance of communities of color to our elected officials as a whole."
Justice at Stake, meanwhile, shines light on TV ad spending in state Supreme Court elections by outside groups, political parties, and candidates.
"As more national players seek to bully and buy the courts, our constitutional right to a fair day in court is in jeopardy," said JAS Executive Director Bert Brandenburg at the time the report was released. "It’s time to insulate our judges from money and partisan politics with reasonable reforms, like well-designed merit selection systems to promote quality candidates while insulating their selection from big-money pressure."