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Elections for sale

Clancy DuBos on how the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Citizens United affected the Nov. 4 primary elections

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Back in the 1930s, a young Tip O'Neill declared, "All politics is local," and for generations that was an ironclad rule in American politics. No longer. The U.S. Supreme Court's 2010 decision in the Citizens United case freed corporations, unions and billionaires to spend limitless amounts of money on political campaigns. This year, they did just that.

  Nowadays, all politics is national.

  Anyone who follows local, state or national politics knows that money often dictates who wins and who loses. We've all heard the old saw that money is the mother's milk of politics. If that's true, what's so different about this election?

  Two things: the sources and the amounts of money that are now available.

  For decades, Congress and most state legislatures wrote laws intended to limit the role of big money in American elections. The idea was to keep power in the hands of voters as much as possible — and, in keeping with O'Neill's maxim, to keep it as local as possible. This was not as easy to do as it would seem. One early law limited campaign spending, and the courts struck it down quickly. Congress then focused on the other side of the coin and imposed limits on who could give and how much. Those laws initially passed constitutional muster and remained on the books for decades.

  There were always loopholes, particularly when it came to "soft" money aimed at filling the coffers of state and national political parties. Still, federal laws consistently outlawed contributions by corporations and unions to individual candidates.

  Then came the Citizens United case. That decision upheld the federal ban on "direct" corporate and union contributions to political campaigns, but for the first time it allowed corporations and unions to contribute unlimited funds to "independent" efforts that support or oppose candidates — without contributing directly to their campaigns. Thus sprang to life a new political creature: the Super PAC.

  The term "PAC" is shorthand for political action committee. PACs came into being with federal campaign finance laws in the 1970s, and they allowed candidates (especially incumbents) to raise lots of money. For example, while individuals initially could give no more than $1,000 to a federal candidate's campaign committee (that limit is now $2,600), they can give up to $5,000 to a PAC — and the PAC can contribute up to $5,000 to a candidate's campaign. However, while corporations and unions can create PACs for their employees and members, they cannot make direct contributions to PACs.

  Super PACs are like PACs on steroids. Thanks to Citizens United, corporations, unions and individuals can contribute unlimited amounts to "independent-expenditure only committees," or Super PACs. Ostensibly, such committees operate independently of individual candidates (wink, wink), but they can "independently" support or oppose individual candidates — as long as they don't coordinate their activities with favored candidates.

  Thus, the Koch Brothers can pour millions into groups like Americans for Prosperity, which spent more than $500,000 to run TV ads attacking Mary Landrieu in the Louisiana race for the U.S. Senate. Ditto for Crossroads GPS, a Super PAC founded by GOP strategist Karl Rove, which spent more than $2 million attacking Landrieu. Ads by those two groups just happened to dovetail perfectly with Bill Cassidy's anti-Obama, anti-Landrieu campaign theme.

  The same holds for Democratic Super PACs. In fact, the two largest Super PACs this election cycle favored Democrats exclusively, according to OpenSecrets.org, a political money-tracking initiative sponsored by the Center for Responsive Politics. In Louisiana, Landrieu and Super PACs that favored her spent more than $16.8 million, compared to just under $11 million spent by Cassidy and Super PACs that supported him. The fact that Landrieu didn't do better on Nov. 4 reflects the overwhelmingly anti-Obama sentiments of Louisiana voters — and the resonance of Cassidy's (and the Super PACs') message.

  In recent years, Super PACs have proliferated like nutria. According to OpenSecrets.org, this election cycle saw 1,236 groups organized as Super PACs reporting total receipts of almost $594 million and total expenditures of more than $339 million. Super PACs pumped a combined $18 million into Louisiana's Senate race on behalf of Cassidy and Landrieu. Thanks to the Dec. 6 runoff, they're not done yet.

  Super PACs also affected local elections. The American Federation of Teachers dumped nearly $450,000 into the Jefferson Parish School Board elections via a Louisiana Super PAC — and helped defeat at least one pro-business incumbent, Michael Delesdernier.

  That trend looms large in Louisiana's races for governor and state Legislature next year. Supporters of U.S. Sen. David Vitter, who has declared his intention to run for governor next year, have formed a Super PAC to promote Vitter's ambitions.

  All that national money brings a newfound focus on national issues. And when voters are already angry, pouring millions into one state can really stoke that anger and increase turnout for one side.

  That helps explain why Landrieu barely led Cassidy on Nov. 4, despite her financial advantage. Another reason for her relatively disappointing finish is history. Right now, the nation's political mood favors the GOP at virtually every level. And historically, two-term presidents get their butts kicked in their final midterm elections. Barack Obama was no exception; he just got his backside kicked a lot more thoroughly. Landrieu and many other Democrats were sad-dled with Obama's unpopularity this go-round, just as Republicans were saddled with George W. Bush's low approval ratings in 2006.

  Part of what changed this time was the intensity and tenor of the national political conversation, in virtually every state. All that national money effectively drowned out local issues. As much as Landrieu tried to focus voter attention on Fort Polk, flood protection and the local benefits of her seniority in Washington, all voters heard was "Obama, Obama, Obama." That simple message resonated, here and elsewhere.

  Looking ahead to 2016 — and in next year's statewide elections in Louisiana — you can expect to see "independent" committees bombarding your TV sets with scorching political ads touting national hot-button issues. And it won't end when Barack Obama leaves office in 26 months. They'll just find a new bogey man.

  Meanwhile, Landrieu is trying hard to localize the conversation in Louisiana's Dec. 6 runoff. She will have a difficult time doing that, particularly after the debt-laden national Democratic Party pulled $1.8 million of pro-Landrieu TV ads that were reserved for the runoff.

  Cassidy, in turn, continues his one-note chorus of "Obama, Obama, Obama" and appears poised to run another "virtual" campaign (a term coined, ironically, by uber-conservative Rush Limbaugh, who backed tea party fave Rob Maness in the Nov. 4 primary). Cassidy did agree to one debate — after early voting closes — but otherwise he remains unapproachable to media and regular folk.

  Given the mood of the Louisiana electorate and the results on Nov. 4 (not to mention his less-than-inspiring debate performances), one can hardly blame Cassidy for running a virtual campaign. If the air game works, why risk a fumble on the ground?

  There is one interesting side note to Cassidy's virtual candidacy: In some ways it's a lab experiment for his chief behind-the-scenes supporter and strategist, David Vitter. Vitter would love to be able to campaign for governor without actually having to encounter voters (and media) who might bring up his past moral failings.

  Cassidy's race for Senate presents Vitter with a risk-free opportunity to test the efficacy of an all-media statewide campaign. If it works for Cassidy this year, maybe it also will work for Vitter next year — particularly if he winds up in a runoff against a Democrat like, say, Mitch Landrieu, who earlier this year won re-election as New Orleans' mayor with an endorsement from ... Barack Obama. Recall that Vitter ran for re-election in 2010 by ignoring his actual opponent (U.S. Rep. Charlie Melancon) and running instead against a virtual foe: Obama.

  Elections for governor, unlike U.S. Senate contests, traditionally require candidates to show up for "local" events. But that was before all politics became national.

Does the nationalization of Louisiana politics mean the end of colorful political characters, as The New York Times posited in a recent article? Maybe so, but it doesn't necessarily mean that candidates who spend the most money always win.

  Consider the outcome of the open primary for Public Service Commission (PSC) in District 1. In that race, wealthy attorney and incumbent PSC member Eric Skrmetta raised three-fourths of his reported $400,000 campaign war chest from utility companies regulated by the PSC. Skrmetta's main opponent, former Alliance for Affordable Energy utility policy director Forest Bradley Wright, raised a fraction of that amount, according to campaign finance reports. (Wright did get a pile of money from solar energy companies, but they are not regulated by the PSC.)

  Despite Skrmetta's huge fundraising advantage, Wright garnered 38 percent of the vote to the incumbent's 37 percent. A third candidate, Al Leone, got 25 percent.

  How did Wright do it? By running a superior campaign — one that focused on local issues, like Skrmetta taking money from companies he's supposed to regulate. Both candidates had clever media ads, but Wright's were better.

  If you're tempted to call that outcome the exception that proves the rule, consider this: No Super PACs got involved in the PSC race. Yet. The runoff is Dec. 6.

  Perhaps the most interesting comment on the nationalization of American politics and the impact of Super PACs came on the evening of Nov. 4 from veteran CBS political analyst Bob Schieffer, who noted that 40 years ago several of President Richard Nixon's top aides went to federal prison for extended terms for raising illegal campaign money — in ways that today all are perfectly legal.

  That sums it up pretty well: After four decades of campaign finance "reform" laws, we have succeeded in legalizing some forms of bribery.

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