Hints of Republican Concern About Unlimited Campaign Cash

A funny thing happened after Citizens United, the 2010 Supreme Court ruling that struck down decades-old campaign finance laws and allowed corporations, unions and so-called dark money groups to spend unlimited sums on US elections.

Democrats, who had warned that the decision would unleash an undisclosed torrent of money in support of Republicans, learned to love her.

As my colleagues Kenneth P. Vogel and Shane Goldmacher have reported, “donors and brokers allied with the Democratic Party embraced dark money with renewed enthusiasm” during the 2020 election, “matching and, in some respects, outperforming the Republicans”.

According to OpenSecrets, a group that tracks money in politics, “outside groups,” meaning organizations independent of official party committees and campaigns, spent $4.5 billion in the decade after Citizens United’s ruling, versus $750 million over the previous two. decades.

Much of that money came from wealthy people. The top 10 donors and their spouses spent $1.2 billion on federal elections during the same period. In 2018 alone, that same group was responsible for 7 percent of all election-related donations, up from 1 percent in 2008.

Democrats, even when they embraced campaign finance reform, often said no.”unilaterally disarm” against the big-money Republican groups. In Senate races like Rep. Martha McSally’s 2020 special election in Arizona, which she lost to former astronaut Mark Kelly, he buried his opponents with television advertising financed by dark money. And even where Democrats fell short, as they did in a national effort by liberal donors to oust Sen. Susan Collins of Maine, party-aligned super PACs rushed into hotly contested races.

Karl Evers-Hillstrom, OpenSecrets Researcher, noted in a 2020 report that 2018 was “the first election cycle since Citizens United in which non-party liberal outside groups spent more than their conservative counterparts.”

So as Democrats have embraced the world of dark money, some Republicans have begun to take a second look at Citizens United.

Don’t get me wrong: “campaign finance reform” is still very much a Democratic project.

A bill in the House calling for a constitutional amendment to repeal the Citizens United ruling and allow states to regulate money in elections as they see fit has only one Republican co-sponsor: Rep. John Katko of New York, who is retiring at the end of his term this year. . Katko supported the impeachment of President Donald Trump after the takeover of Capitol Hill on Jan. 6, 2021, so he’s not exactly a bellwether for Republican sentiment in Congress.

But this week, while accompanying members of American Promise, a nonpartisan group that promotes a 28th Amendment to the Constitution which would follow closely with Katko Peak, I found some faint signs that the winds were shifting to the right.

American Promise recently hired a new CEO, Bill Cortese, who rose through the ranks of the Republican operating class. Cortese, a former campaign aide to former Rep. Chris Shays, a Connecticut Republican who sponsored what became known as the McCain-Feingold Act in 2002, has worked for Governor Chris Christie of New Jersey and for Mercury Strategies, a government affairs firm. who works with Democrats and Republicans alike.

Cortese is helping the group hone its pitch to Republicans, discussing shared concerns about the role of Silicon Valley billionaires in elections, for example, and finding allies in the business community who can relate to conservative lawmakers who are wary of Trump. anything that smacks of liberalism. goodness

One striking proponent of the group’s proposed amendment is Doug Mastriano, the far-right Republican state senator from Pennsylvania now running for governor. On September 21, Mastriano, who is being vastly outmatched by his Democratic opponent, introduced a resolution with five other Republicans Express your support for the idea.

Some local chambers of commerce, normally strongholds of GOP support, have also signed on. David Black, a former assistant to Governor Tom Ridge of Pennsylvania and former president of the Harrisburg Regional Chamber who is active in American Promise, is a champion of the concept. Rick Bennett, a Republican state senator and former majority leader from Oxford, Maine, spoke at the American Promise conference this week in Washington.

In Maine, a group called Protect Maine Elections has presented the proposed amendment as a means to regulate foreign money that has flooded the state amid a fierce political battle over power transmission lines promoted by Canadian and Spanish companies.

The US subsidiary of a Canadian utility company, Hydro-Québec, “created an army of foreign agents in the run-up to the November 2 referendum.” Anna Massoglia from OpenSecrets informed. “Those foreign agents reported more than $2.5 million in payments as part of the influence operation since 2020.”

The bar for passing a constitutional amendment is high by design. Two-thirds of the votes of both the House and Senate are needed just to propose one, or a convention requested by two-thirds of the 50 states. Then three of the four state legislatures, a total of 38, must ratify it for it to become law.

That is why we only have 27 amendments so far. The latest, which prohibits Congress from raising its own salary (raises can take effect only after a midterm election), passed in 1992 after a decade of concerted lobbying.

It would be extremely difficult to persuade Republican senators to sign on.

On Wednesday, actress Debra Winger, a member of the American Promise board of directors, prepped the group’s activists before they headed to the Capitol on Thursday, accompanied by a piper, for brief meetings with aides to Senators Collins, Lisa Murkowski from Alaska and Marco Rubio. and Rick Scott of Florida, along with Representative Scott Perry of Pennsylvania and a few other Republican members of the House.

They left encouraged that they had found an audience, but received no firm commitments of support.

“I applaud what they are doing. It’s important work and we need these conversations. But in Washington, Republicans haven’t gotten any better at this,” said Adam Bozzi, vice president of communications for End Citizens United, a left-leaning group that supports overhauling campaign finance laws. “And the Supreme Court is getting worse.”

Last week, Republican senators blocked a vote on a Democratic-sponsored bill to require any organization that spends money during a federal election to disclose donors of $10,000 or more. The media, expecting the bill to fail, barely covered it.

Collins, for his part, was a co-sponsor of McCain-Feingold and has criticized the Supreme Court ruling in Citizens United. But she has disregarded the new disclosure laws, endorsing a proposal years ago by Senators Angus King of Maine and Jon Tester of Montana while opposing others.

Senator Tim Kaine, a Democrat from Virginia, has said that Election Spending Restrictions Invalid for Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the Senate minority leader.

At the state level, the picture is mixed. In several states, including Missouri and South Dakota, voters have approved ballot initiatives to restore some controls on campaign finance. In 2012, a Republican legislature in Montana passed a law to regulate dark money, but a federal court struck it down.

Since then, Montana seems to have gone in the opposite direction. In February, state senator Steve Fitzpatrick, a Republican, introduced a bill that would relax certain disclosure rules, which he said were intended to rule out “nitpicky stuff that we’ve all come to hate in our campaign finance system.”

Governor Greg Gianforte, who has been accused of violating campaign finance lawshe signed a version of the bill in May.

If there is any hope for the long-term project of the 28th Amendment, it is this: Polls show widespread public discontent with the role of money in American politics.

A 2018 survey from the Center for Public Integrityfor example, it found that 66 percent of Republicans backed a constitutional amendment to revert Citizens United.

In a CBS News poll in August86 percent of all voters cited the “influence of money in politics” as a top threat to democracy, higher than “potential for political violence” or “attempts to overturn elections.”

A private poll by the Global Strategy Group and Impact Research, which works primarily for Democrats, found that 92 percent of voters in battleground states agreed with the statement “End dark money by making all contributions policies are transparent.

Those kinds of numbers suggest, at a minimum, that GOP leaders are at odds with their constituents when it comes to money in politics, giving groups like American Promise at least a fighting chance.

“Republican voters,” Bozzi said, “don’t like this.”

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