"Secret Money from God Knows Where"

Campaign cash and finger-pointing in the post-Citizens United era

There’s no doubt that having cash on hand helps win elections, up to a point.

And thanks to Citizens United, there are some new ways for candidates to pull corporate and special interest cash for campaign season advertising. Which means two things: (1) Vast new pools of gettable and spendable money, and—more importantly—(2) an exciting new way to vilify your opponents.

Consider the now-famous line uttered by Democratic Majority Leader Nancy Pelosi (Calif.) at a Democratic fundraiser last week: "Everything was going great and all of a sudden secret money from God knows where—because they won’t disclose it—is pouring in." Or this one from Obama about the origins of Republican money: "You don't know. It could be the oil industry. It could even be foreign-owned corporations. You don't know because they don't have to disclose."

As it happens, Citizens United hasn’t been a major factor in determining the raw number of dollars dumped into election spending this year. Spending by outside groups is only expected to come to about 10 percent of the money spent in this cycle, and much of that spending was legal even before Citizens United.

Democrats are making a fuss over their supposed spending disadvantage in this area the way that high school girls start talking about how they have cramps right before a field hockey game—they’re looking to explain away bad performance. But Pelosi and Co. should be careful where they point that dirty money narrative, because Republican donors aren’t the only ones enjoying the new freedoms brought on by Citizens United.

Democratic donors are catching up. The biggest special interest donors on the Democratic side have long been public sector unions. While the National Education Association has dominated the Democratic donor list for years, in this cycle the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) blew past the teachers, giving a total of $87.5 million so far, including taking out a loan to give another $2 million as the race barrels toward the finish line. That total makes AFSCME the biggest outside spender of this election cycle. And no matter what Obama and Pelosi imply, those millions aren't going to Republicans.

Unions have always spent big money on elections, including get-out-the-vote campaigns and other efforts that involve moving bodies around. But now, thanks to Citizens United, they can spend their money more freely on political advertising as well. This cycle $17 million of AFSME’s cash will go to political ads supporting Democrats.

Democrats are also getting in on some of that non-disclosed non-profit dough through the newly-created America's Families First Action Fund. In the last two weeks, the group has spent more than $5 million on 19 House races, and plans to spend twice as much again before Election Day.

Around this time of year, those kind of dollar figures get poll watchers hot and bothered, but the real question is whether we’re seeing a fundamental change in the way elections are funded. For now, while a few million at the last minute can seem like a big deal, the total of semi-secret dollar dumps made possible by Citizens United are small. And in the long term, the structural changes may actually be for the good.

One upshot of increased spending by interest groups could be a reduction in the power major parties hold over candidates. Normally, when a question of party discipline looms in the House or Senate, savvy incumbents allowed themselves to be whipped into shape, afraid of getting checkbook slapped by party bosses. According to The Washington Post, a third of all independent expenditures reported to the Federal Election Commission this year comes from the two major parties, compared to 54 percent in 2008 and 80 percent in previous cycles.

Pelosi decided to go after those obese feline Republicans and their undisclosed donors at a dinner where the price of admission was $50,000 per couple. The meal was expected to bring in about $600,000 for the Democrats. Sure, that’s the old fashioned way to do things. But it’s not clear why Obama and Pelosi are so eager to go on the record claiming that extracting fistfuls of Franklins from The Rich (capitalization in Democratic party original) at schmoozy dinners is virtuous, while taking cash from unions, pro-business groups, or other special interests that aggregate small dollar amounts from lots of little guys is vicious.

Katherine Mangu-Ward is a senior editor at Reason magazine.

Editor's Note: We invite comments and request that they be civil and on-topic. We do not moderate or assume any responsibility for comments, which are owned by the readers who post them. Comments do not represent the views of Reason.com or Reason Foundation. We reserve the right to delete any comment for any reason at any time. Report abuses.

  • Wind Rider||

    Yeah, they would have gotten away with it if it weren't for those darned teenagers and that dog!

  • ||

    "...the way that high school school girls start talking about how they have cramps right before a field hockey game..."

    SEXIST!!!!

  • The Gobbler||

    Beat me by 3 minutes

  • ||

    ...the way that high school school girls start talking about how they have cramps right before a field hockey game...

    You know what is good for easing cramps.

    Sadly of course we should probably not be encouraging that remedy for high school girls, but i am willing to bet there is a pretty good alternative method that only Christy O'Connell would oppose.

  • Breaking News From 1937||

    before a field hockey game

    East Coast Elitism!!!

  • ||

    field hockey IS sexist. they won't let men play on the teams. only women. it's discriminatory. women can play on football teams and other (allegedly) exclusively male sports IF they are good enough. but the reverse isn't true. it's like they are tacitly admitting they are weaker, slower, etc. imagine that!

  • ||

    What would be interesting would be to see how much stimulus money went to Democrats and Republicans.

    10 bucks says more went to Democrats then Republicans...

    But more importantly I bet another 10 that more went to incumbents then went to challengers.

  • ||

    I mean election money.

  • Fist of Etiquette||

    The Repukes won't disclose and so Obama doesn't know whose ass to kick.

  • Wind Rider||

    If he's bored, he can start with his own, until the list is ready. Some might point out it seems like he's already started. . .

  • ||

    It's neat how the Citizens United thing has become absolute gospel on the left. It's so meme-ified that I see people talking about it on Facebook. Is this obsession because their talking heads are obsessed with it, and they follow suit? Or is it because of the big bad corporations that it so occupies their minds?

  • The Other Kevin||

    I think they are just blindly following leadership. I just saw a cut & paste FB post from a teacher, urging anyone with kids in a public school to get out and vote Tuesday, to save public education. I was tempted to respond, but I know I'm not match for indoctrination from a teacher's union.

  • ||

    My mom got a flyer from the school she teaches at encouraging people to vote, but if they're gonna vote, 'vote for our guys!"

    The big one is how they think Amendment 8 in FL is going to be a real cost-cutter to education, even though without education is a real money-loser. I want to point out that with benefits, teachers (especially union teachers) make a good amount of money. But I can't ever find definitive data, so when I try to argue that people just give me the old strawman "Are you kidding? Teachers don't get into teaching for the money!"

  • Wind Rider||

    It was supposed to only be a 5 minute hate thing, but someone fucked up and handed the hipsters an analog clock, which none of them learned how to read.

  • Tman||

    When it comes to the Citizens United vs. FEC deal I always get a chuckle at the whiny hypocrisy from the left when I ask why the ads for Hillary, The Movie were banned by the FEC but Fahrenheit 9/11 didn't even get a sniff.

  • sex-ism||

    just one more data point in support of the dems behaving like teenage girls...passing along gossip as fact, caring more about being seen as in possession of the meme than in possession of any truth.

  • cynical||

    "Corporation" is a verbally triggered mental kill switch installed in all newer models of socialists and progressives. It allows a speaker to briefly disable the model's reasoning faculties; this is useful if one is attempting to convince the socialist or progressive of something illogical, implausible, or obviously self-destructive.

  • Hooha||

    I think this may be truer than the tongue-in-cheek nature of the post would lead an objective reader to otherwise believe.

  • Dello||

    "because Republican donors aren’t the only ones enjoying the new freedoms brought on by Citizens United."

    I thought the only new freedoms that Citizens United provided was that money could be spent spent within 30 days of the election. I didn't think there were ANY other limits that it undid.

  • ||

    We arer all going to get very tired of Team Blue bitching about Citizen's United being the cause of next week's donkey drubbing. After the post election spending analysis's are done showing spending ~ equal by both sides, they'll ignore the inconvenient truth and still bitch.

  • ||

    They're pathological liars. They have created an alternate universe for themselves. I think if they ever finally acknowledge the truth, they'll go insane and retreat to a corner, drooling, like James Taggart.

  • ||

    According to Ms. Mangu-Ward, the democrats are complaining that republicans have unknown amounts of ads from anonymous sources..."secret money from god knows where."

    But it's okay because the democracts get known amounts of money from known sources? [The NEA, AFSCME, AFFAF, and $50,000 dinners.]

    How are those equivalences? That's just lazy logic.

    On top of that, it's basically just a "Team Red is allowed to do it because Team Blue does it" or "he started it" kind of argument. I can get that on FOX News or MSNBC.

    The tidbits about funding percentages, influence of the two party system, what was legal before Citizens United, and other things interesting to a libertarian, should have been the focus of the article and then she could have dispensed with the red/blue name-calling and hair-pulling.

  • Hobie Hanson||

    The same reason it's better to let your daughter have sex with boys as long as she brings them over to let you meet them first, and then does it within earshot, instead of doing random dudes in the Chick-Fil-A bathroom that you have no control over.

  • ||

    What's your beef with Chick-Fil-A?

  • ||

    This statement is either incredibly ironic or painstakingly naive. "Eat mor chikin!"

  • ||

    What? She's too good to do boys in the KFC bathroom?

    RACIST!!!

  • tarran||

    The pathetic thing about our good friend Dan T./Forrest/Hobbie is that he fails to see the alternative: the Supreme Court could have applied the speech restriction to all corporations and the New York Times wouldn't be allowed to say anything for thirty days before an election...

    Actually, now that I type that, it would be an interesting thing; I believe most NY Times news writers would struggle to write an article longer than 4 inches without including a discussion of the relevant government policy (or decrying the absence of one).

    It would be quite the entertaining exercise...

  • non||

    I think leftists hate Citizens United so much because they honestly believe that without corporate manipulation, (and religion) the democratic process would yield a just society.

  • ||

    I think leftists hate Citizens United so much because they honestly believe that without corporate manipulation, (and religion) the democratic process would yield a just society.

    The results from the Soviet Union did prove them right.

  • RyanXXX||

    How many articles is Reason going to do about this? We get it already. It's maing me wonder if them and the Koch's actually do have something to hide

  • RyanXXX||

    "they and the Kochs"

    Posting high is never good

  • Max||

    It's unsurprising that you "libertarians" think that foreign corporations should have the "right" to steal our democracy, given that you also think that restaurant owners should have the "right" to shoot any black person that enters into their establishment.

  • Old Man With Candy||

    Run short on lithium?

  • Anonymous Coward||

    Funny. I thought only Republicans hated "dem shifty furriners."

  • Max's hate list entries||

    #26 Restaurant owners
    #06 Foreign "interests"
    #87 Black persons
    #99 Democracy thieves
    #02 "libertarians"

  • ||

    Is #1 Max (himself)? I can see him as a self-loather.

  • Possibly RyanXXX||

    Posting high is never good

  • tarran||

    Guys, even when he went full retard and threatened to sue Urkobold, max/edward/lefiti/concerned observer max wasn't this stupid.

    If you are going to spoof him, keep it plausible, will ya?

  • Matrix||

    "steal our democracy"? lol... what a tool

  • non||

    Funny. I thought only Republicans hated "dem shifty furriners."

    The Republicans hate the poor ones, and the Democrats hate the rich ones.

  • Wild-eyed, raving kooks||

    '...Pelosi..."and all of a sudden secret money from God knows where—because they won’t disclose it—is pouring in." Or...Obama about the origins of Republican money: "You don't know. It could be the oil industry. It could even be foreign-owned corporations. You don't know because they don't have to disclose."'

  • All this while||

    Obama takes Air Force One on yet another Democratic fund-raising tour.

  • Barack Hussein Obama II||

    What carbon footprint?

  • MJ||

    What's so inane about this is that Citizen's United is not about money campaign donations. It's about being able to publish material that could be considered electioneering, i.e. a campaign donation in kind.

    I have to presume this misunderstanding is at the source deliberately malicious, as the people who started it (Obama, et al) are educated in the law enough to know better.

  • ||

    If you wish to Rule the Universe, you want to know who is against you. You must suppress all dissent. You must control the media, the message, and control all thought.

  • ||

    I'm sure this idea will go over like a pregnant pole-vaulter but I am starting to warm to the notion of having all campaign funds come from tax revenue. Seems like much of the problems we have now come from politicians "repaying" people and entities that helped to get/keep them elected. If all the money came equally from "the people" we might help keep things on the level. Thoughts?

  • ||

    I have no problem with this for the actual campaigns, but when you take away the right of interested third parties to spend money advocating what is in their interest, then I think you really stunt their freedom of speech.

    So, give all candidates an equal amount of money (not just the D's and R's, but ALL of the people running) in an election, but let outside groups spend what they want, how they want and as anonymously as they want. You would see immediate changes in the makeup of state legislatures the minute libertarians get the same amount of inside money as the two big parties get. For federal elections, the change would be a little slower, but it would come quicker than most people think.

  • ||

    One of the core principles in my system is that all candidate would receive the same amount of $, end of story. Media could dontate time and use of their various platforms but, politics would, I think, become more civilized because the candidates would need to be perceived as being good stewards of the campaign money.As opposed to the "get elected at any cost so you can affect legislation to my favor"mindset we have now.

  • DLM||

    So if I happened to be unemployed, just register as a candidate and I'm good.

  • ||

    I don't want my tax money paying for campaign ads for candidates I hate. It's bad enough I have to pay their salaries when they're elected.
    But more importantly, if taxes fund campaigns then the Government gets to decide which candidates are 'important' enough to fund. It's the same problem we already have with ballot access, only worse, because at least now an independent candidate with money can buy his way onto the ballot.
    If you really insist on 'the people' funding the campaigns, a better option would be to have a central depository to which anyone can send cash anonymously, which would then be distributed to whichever candidates the donors indicated. Since the candidates wouldn't know who donated to their campaigns, they wouldn't have anyone to 'repay'. This would still be a bit statist for my taste, but it's better than any other highly-regulated plan I've heard of.

  • ||

    In the current "system" your post-tax dollars are going to support candidates you hate. If you buy products made using labor represented by unions for example. At least, in my system, the candidate you like would get just as much financial support. I really like your idea of the anonymous donor but my hunch is that if you take out benifit you will remove much of the interest to contribute to PAC's. This is not cancer research afterall. I think your "central depository" idea and what I am envisioning are the same thing but in my mind the "contributions" are forced through taxes.

  • ||

    As you I start to warm to the idea but for an additional reason.
    Not only does the current situation make candidates indebted to sponsors, but it also favors the "big two" parties.
    We desperately need more Representatives and Senators who don't have to play lip service to either the RNC or the DNC.

  • ||

    Excellent point! Collateral damage sometimes works in your favor.

  • DLM||

    Not only does the current situation make candidates indebted to sponsors, but it also favors the "big two" parties.

    So change to system of government with proportional representation instead of 50+% winner-take-all.

  • ||

    One condition: every year, fifty politicians, selected at random, get thrown in a galadiatorial pit.

    Dammit, I want entertainment for my money!

  • ||

    Would put MMA and WWE out of business!

  • ||

    You know what I miss? A good old fashioned war. Not the War on Terror, or the War on Obesity or poverty or drugs... I'm talking about Group A vs Group B, fighting, killing, raping the women, and putting children in labor camps without all this god forsaken fuss about human rights or "Not All of Group A is bad" bullshit.

    Straight up, Feel-Good, No-Guilt, Everybody on the otherside is the enemy WAR... that's what we're missing.

  • Carl||

    i hear you and with a good classic bad guy and the first one that comes to mind is Kim Jong Il because..well..he is the classic mad man leader and totally predictable

  • Sonny Boy Press||

    Sounds good to me. Pick a country and let's fight. Better than all this crybaby horseshit. Used to be a time when men were men.

  • ||

    It's a shame the UN does such a good job with conflict resolution, otherwise this could happen.

  • ||

    Hahahaha... oh, are you serious? I just saw UN and "good job" in the same sentence and assumed it was a joke.

  • ||

    Not big enough. You'd need the Chinamen to side with him. Then, we could get the Japs and Taiwanese and the South Koreans on our side. Perhaps we could even bring India into it on the team China/North Korea side and we could get the Brits and Aussies on ours. That would actually settle a lot of scores between the Chinese and the Jap/Taiwan contingent as well as the Brit/Indian thingy. Getting the Russians involved would make it a classic, but they'd have to be on our side to even things up a bit manpower-wise.

    I'm for it. How can we make this thing happen?

  • Sonny Boy Press||

    Yer gettin' too political dude. Just pick one country and start a war. I love this idea. Greatest thing I've heard since the announcement of Sam Adam's Octoberfest being served on tap at my local pub.

  • Sonny Boy Press||

    And the first person that says this ain't moral, we whip the dogshit out of them. We dont care if it is wrong. What are you going to do about it, sucker! God it feels so right.

    It's like some fever dream where everybody is explaining the reasons why you shouldn't fuck or questions you for why you want to slip yer cock into some nice wet, warm pussy and the whole world is making you justify your intent and urges... then finally you just say fuck it and punish some bitches' cunt in a primal orgasmic frenzy of liberation. God knows she'll be happy to have a man back in her life

    Suddenly society wakes up and realizes how wrong they were all along. War, sex, violence, greed = good.

  • Peter Jensen||

    I am sure you would be the first to volunteer.
    I am surprised you're not in Iraq or Afghanistan. From what we recently learned about what's happening on the ground there are plenty of opportunities to play "bad guy".

  • ||

    It's not Iraq Vs America. It's the "War on Terror". Not what I was talkin' about.

  • Carl||

    forget corporation money how about the first politician who gets brand new reserve notes in sequential order!

  • Gregory Goldmacher||

    I have heard, mostly from conservatives recently, the argument that disclosure of all political support for candidates or positions is what totalitarian regimes demand. But we're not living in one (kooky exaggerations aside). Why not disclose everything?

  • DLM||

    I have heard, mostly from conservatives recently, the argument that disclosure of all political support for candidates or positions is what totalitarian regimes demand.

    I have never heard that, and I expect I've heard more conservatives than you. It's usually, "let everyone give what they want as long as there is full disclosure".

  • ||

    Neither side want reform but we as citizens must demand it. Political contributions should be limited to individual private citizen donors with annual caps. No untraceable internet donations, no PAC donations, no union donations, no corporate donations. But alas, it just farting in the wind - it will never happen.

  • nike shoes UK||

    is good

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