Citizens United is Destroying the Republican Party

02/08/2016

So now that the good people of Iowa have gone to the polls, or whatever it is exactly they do at their caucuses, and begun to draw our long national nightmare to a close, you mighta thought they’d have managed to thin the herd a bit. Sure, Rand Paul and Rick Santorum fell to the wayside, but nobody even knew Santorum was running, and Paul was always the Right’s version of a protest candidate. Meanwhile everybody else is still stampeding toward the cliff.

What’s driving them in that direction is, ironically enough, Citizens United.

For the uninitiated: Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission was a 2010 Supreme Court decision in which the bench’s conservative majority ruled that limits on corporate (or union, or nonprofit) spending in elections were unconstitutional. It was followed just three months later by another decision, this time out of a lower court, SpeechNow.org v. Federal Election Commission, which really blew the lid off, overturning limits on contributions to “groups whose sole purpose was funding independent expenditures.” These groups became known as ‘super PACs’; while technically they’re barred from coordinating with candidates (hence “independent expenditures,” though there’s plenty of reason to think many of these groups aren’t particularly independent), they can raise unlimited sums from wherever they can get them, and deploy them at will. Plenty of reporting has focused on the unprecedented scale of super PAC money in the Republican primary; there’s been less appreciation for how its molded the dynamics of the race. It’s the super PACs which are in large part responsible for the crowded Republican field, and what’s beginning to look like the party’s inability to settle on a consensus candidate without more serious bloodletting.

Certainly, if you look at the most recent numbers tallied up by OpenSecrets (note that page is updated on a regular basis, so by the time you click the link it’s possible it might not support the following observation, but it does at the moment, I swear), at least 50 percent of the millions conjured up in support of the candidacies of Jeb, Rubio, Christie, and Fiorina has stuffed the coffers of their respective super PACs. This was also the case for Walker, Perry, Huckabee, Jindal, and Pataki before they bowed out. Cruz, Paul, and Graham have all slightly favored their campaign committees; Cruz, to pick the last man standing and the one who’s for the moment first among equals, has seen about 47 percent of the almost $90 million raised to underwrite his bid tithed to the Tiamat of super PACs he’s summoned.

The only real exceptions are Santorum, Kasich, Carson, and Trump, all of whom have raised at least twice as much through their campaign committees as through outside groups (of which super PACs are only a single species). It’s tempting to argue all four are, to some extent, outsiders: Carson and Trump are obvious enough (though if anyone ever manages to account for the in-kind contributions and self-dealing who knows what the finances of Trump’s campaign will look like), while Kasich arguably gets in by virtue of his relative moderation (though considering a sitting governor an outsider is a stretch). Santorum is where that characterization runs into the most trouble, given that he served multiple terms in Congress and was the third-ranking Republican in the Senate when he was taken down, but his evangelical base could be interpreted as placing him outside the establishment. Hence the dependence of all four on their campaign committees and therefore smaller donors; they just can’t get their hands into the deep pockets.

Bottom line: super PACs backing nine of the sixteen Republican contenders have raised at least 50 percent of the money supporting their candidacies. Add the three (Cruz, Paul, and Graham) whose super PACs’ share came in just under 50 percent and you’ve accounted for three-quarters of the Republican field. It’s Citizens United and SpeechNow.org that have shaped the race and the super PACs that are driving it forward.

An important caveat: raising cash and spending it aren’t the same thing. So for example, even though Cruz’s super PACs have raised at least $39 million, they’ve only spent upwards of $10.5 million (seems Keep the Promise I, II, and III haven’t quite been living up to their names). Which is to say that it isn’t as simple as arguing that if Cruz didn’t have his super PACs, his campaign would’ve ground to a halt months ago. It’s as much a matter of how the super PACs shape strategic considerations — assuming functions once reserved for campaigns, firing off attack ads that might otherwise damage the attacker’s image, offering a measure of assurance to a candidate that they can still raise cash to fight even if their campaign committee is burning through money — as how they can keep a campaign afloat.

And yet while Cruz isn’t alone — Paul, Huckabee, and Rubio have apparently relied on their campaign committees for more than half the money spent promoting their candidacies — the rest of the super PAC crowd has leaned on those outfits just as heavily to spend money as to raise it. The super PACs lined up behind Jeb, Carly, Walker, Jindal, Pataki, Perry, Graham, and Christie — half the Republican field — have all shelled out at least 50 percent of the funds pushing for their respective candidates.

Focusing on spending, though, ignores the most important part of this transaction: buying influence. Rummage through the filings a bit and it’s hard to avoid the tired observation that ‘All politics is local.’ There’s no clear sectoral divisions between the donors — it’s not like one of the candidates is clearly backed by agro money while someone else emerges as Big Pharma’s guy — it’s geography that divides them. So of the top five donors to Right to Rise, the super PAC backing Jeb, two are from Florida and three are from Texas (which is of course his brother’s turf). Cruz’s Keep the Promise II seems to be the exclusive property of Texas oil & gas guy Toby Neugebauer, while Keep the Promise III was mostly staked by Texas frackers the Wilks Brothers. Conservative Solutions PAC, which believes the solution is Rubio, counts two Florida businesses among its five largest contributors: a horse racing operation and a luxury car dealership. The two biggest donors behind the super PAC upping Scott Walker were both out of his home state of Wisconsin.

What we’re really seeing in this torturously prolonged Republican primary is basically a war of local elites. You can hardly blame ’em — if you’re a candidate you’re a prisoner of the dilemma (not everyone can be Bernie), and if you’re a local heavy with a few hundred grand or a couple million to spare, you might as well ante up. Worst-case scenario is you’ve bought yourself some serious face-time with that governor or Congresscritter; best case it’s a weekend in the Lincoln bedroom or maybe an ambassadorship. Sit it out and you risk pissing off the next president. So you chip in to support your local guy, and the fact that all these local guys (and one gal) have millions (if not tens of millions) behind them gives them no incentive to back down. Cue fratricide.

You might think all this would lead some Republicans to start questioning Citizens United, but insofar as that’s happened, it’s mostly been to call for depositing the cash elsewhere. The party elite is simply too wedded to the idea that former Oracle CEO (and current Hawaiian-island owner) Larry Ellison throwing a few million bucks Marco Rubio’s way constitutes ‘free speech.’ The paradox is that what’s bad for the party has been in some sense good for the base: despite the freak show cage match quality of the whole season for liberals, conservatives have seen a wide field of candidates and relatively substantive (if, from a progressive perspective, often terrifying) debate.

The limits of that debate are etched by the money underwriting it. Certain questions will remain farther off the table than ever; the guy who raised a hundred million may loose to the guy who raised sixty-five, but they’ll both be bought and sold. Until then kick back and enjoy the bloodshed. We’ll see if New Hampshire claims any scalps.