Over the past few weeks the results, many of them unintended, perhaps, of the 2010 U.S. Supreme Court decision in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission have become apparent. In Citizens United the Supreme Court held unconstitutional those portions of the McCain-Feingold campaign finance reform law that restricted what the law called “electioneering expenditures” by corporations and labor unions, i.e. expenditures on political messages in the media. Interestingly, the court did not overturn the McCain-Feingold restrictions on direct contributions to candidates or to their parties.
The effect of this decision has been the rise of what are now called “super PACs,” political action committees established by private individuals and corporations to which corporations and unions may make unlimited gifts. As a result, we now have numerous super PACs controlled by wealthy corporations and unions with virtually unlimited funds to spend on campaigns while candidates and traditional party institutions like the Democratic and Republican National Committees have far less money to spend.
The presence and power of the super PACs have been manifest in the Iowa caucuses and in the New Hampshire and South Carolina primaries. Millions of dollars have been poured into media campaigns, many of them negative. Virtually all of the candidates have suffered from these negative media blitzes and all have complained of the power of the super PACs.
Whether these have been honest complaints by the candidates is hard to judge. There is no doubt that some candidates exercise some degree of control over the super PACs. Regardless of who is actually in control, the power of the super PACs has been significant.
For instance, I think that it is likely that one effect of the super PACs’ power was reflected in Newt Gingrich’s shift from disavowing negative campaigning to accepting the necessity of such negative media campaigns because of the massive negative advertising that he faced, negative advertising paid for by several super PACs. Indeed, one may argue that it was an infusion of cash into a super PAC supporting Gingrich that gave his campaign the boost necessary to win the South Carolina primary.
Certainly, the rise of super PACs has significantly changed the nature of political campaigns and made them far more expensive. It has also created a new dynamic in political campaigns. Traditional party organizations generally do not run media campaigns against their own party members in primaries. Many candidates are also hesitant to run negative campaigns directly for fear of alienating voters. But super PACs, because they are not officially part of any party or technically controlled by candidates, can run as many negative advertisements as they wish. Party organizations and candidates then have “deniability” and can say that they do not support negative campaigning while still benefiting from it. Therefore, a candidate like Gingrich is forced to be part of a negative campaign in order to be competitive.
One might ask whether the super PACs will play a significant role in Kansas politics in 2012. The fact is that they already are significant in our state and will continue to be so. It was only a short while ago that seven moderate Republican members of the Kansas Legislature, including Steve Morris and John Vratil, were announced as targets to be defeated in the upcoming election by a super PAC. Can anyone doubt that super PACs will throw millions of dollars into Kansas campaigns to ensure that the candidates they support will be victorious?
With unlimited money to spend, super PACs may very well buy control of Kansas politics. Perhaps they already have. What has happened recently in Iowa, New Hampshire, and South Carolina will, almost certainly, happen here in Kansas.
Whether or not one agrees with the Supreme Court’s decision in Citizens United, no one can deny that it has significantly shifted political power in this country and in this state. Just as certainly, we can expect super PACs to attempt to dominate and control the 2012 elections in Kansas. The targeting of moderate Republicans in the primaries is surely not all that will happen.
Is there any way to lessen the influence of all the money the super PACs will inject into our political campaigns? The answer is yes. The key to defeating the power of the super PACs, in Kansas and throughout the U.S. is for the voting public to ignore the media advertising placed by the super PACs. If we don’t let those millions of dollars influence us, then the money will be wasted and the super PACs will have little or no influence. The alternative is unpleasant to contemplate.