At the end of August, the Republican National Committee (RNC) had just over $5 million in the bank for the final stretch of the 2010 midterm election campaign and was carrying over $2 million in debt. These figures may have had Democrats jumping for joy, but their excitement would have been misplaced. The combination of missteps by Republican Party chair Michael Steele and the landmark decision in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission has created a paradigm shift in how elections are funded. Rather than giving money directly to the Republican Party—where their names are made public and the amount they give is regulated—major donors have abandoned the RNC and are giving to 527 and 501(c)(4) organizations, which can take money directly from corporations. This new approach to campaign finance will alter U.S. politics, reducing the power of political parties while increasing the power of corporate interests.
The best examples are American Crossroads, a Republican 527 organization, and American Crossroads, GPS, a sister non-profit. These groups are run by Karl Rove, Ed Gillespie, and Michael Duncan. Gillespie was former chair of the Republican Party and Duncan, also a former RNC chair, was a challenger to Michael Steele for current chair of the Party.
In what has been described as a coup of the RNC, American Crossroads has become known as the "Shadow RNC" and is engaged in functions normally done by the RNC. This includes the nuts and bolts of political campaigns, such as advertising for and against candidates, polling, opposition research, database acquisition and management, as well as get out the vote efforts. They have even created a party platform which they call the "7 in 11" plan, consisting of:
- obstructing taxes for the rich
- preventing stimulus spending
- cutting back spending on Medicare and Social Security
- preventing implementation of health-care reform promoting aggressive immigration enforcement
- speeding up nuclear, coal, oil, and other energy production
Unlike political parties, where there are limits on the amount of money they can take from individuals and which are required to report their donors, American Crossroads is not limited by the size of the donations and, in many cases, does not have to report the names of the donors. It can also take money from corporations which, under Citizens United, can spend as much as they want on elections. The American Crossroads organizations raised $17.6 million through mid-August. The initial fundraising came from 4 individual billionaires cited as donating over 97 percent of the total. American Crossroads GPS, raised $5 million in June, its first month of operation. American Crossroads plans to raise and spend over $52 million to influence the 2010 elections.
During a July Fox News broadcast, Rove acknowledged that the American Crossroads groups are "currently hiring operatives with state-specific campaign knowledge to bolster the operation" and are spending millions on ads in key House and Senate races. They have already aired TV ads in the Ohio, Colorado, and Nevada Senate races and have targeted others in Missouri, New Hampshire, Pennsylvania, Arkansas, Colorado, Kentucky, Florida, Illinois, and Washington State.
The election watchdog group Protect Our Elections (which I work for) has been seeking an Advisory Opinion from the FEC subjecting American Crossroads to the same rules that govern the RNC, since it is functioning as a political party. We have also written the attorney general urging him to:
- make a public statement that all electoral activities will be closely monitored
- require organizations involved in elections—or issue advocacy related to elections—to preserve all documents and emails
- set up a task force to monitor, investigate, and prosecute illegal electoral activities
- set up a tip line for whistleblowers to report campaign finance violations
- impanel a grand jury to investigate these matters during the campaign season
At the same time that the American Crossroads groups are taking over party RNC functions, corporations are investing heavily in the mid-term elections. The Chamber of Commerce, led by Rove ally Tom Donohue, is hoping to spend as much as either political party on the upcoming elections, $75 million, focusing on 10 senate races and 40 House races. The Chamber has already weighed in on Senate contests, spending more than $4 million so far in Massachusetts, Arkansas, Colorado, Pennsylvania, Illinois, and Ohio—with California next. The Chamber is the largest corporate player, leading 15 conservative organizations planning on spending $300 million in November.
Individual industries are also planning to spend big. The Center for Public Integrity reports that five insurance giants—Aetna Inc., Cigna Corp., Humana Inc., United HealthCare Inc., and WellPoint Inc.—plan to spend $20 million on close House races. The coal industry is also planning on spending millions to influence races in Kentucky and Tennessee.
The Democrats will get their usual support from unions and other Democratic leaning groups. The Service Employees International Union will spend $44 million on the mid-term elections. The AFL-CIO is planning on spending more than $50 million and is focusing its efforts on six states—California, New York, Illinois, Nevada, Ohio, and Pennsylvania. But the Republicans have adapted to Citizens United more quickly. As in previous elections, concentrated corporate funding will dwarf that of unions and others allied with the Democrats.
With the failure thus far of Congress to pass the DISCLOSE Act, voters will not be told who is funding advertising campaigns. The Chamber has a history of using this deceptive approach, creating front groups that sound like citizen groups, but which are really funded by corporate interests. As a result, instead of caveat emptor, buyer beware, Americans may need to learn a new phrase when it comes to voting: caveat suffragium, voter beware. Deception will be the foundation of American elections more than ever before.