Campaigns/Elections

Pity the Rich Incumbent

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As I noted last week and Radley Balko noted this morning, Democrats are actually outspending Republicans in this year's elections, despite all the complaints about ads sponsored by "shadowy groups" that favor the GOP. According to a front-page story in today's New York Times, "Democratic candidates have generally wielded a significant head-to-head financial advantage over their Republican opponents in individual competitive races." (As Matt Welch observes, the Times says this point has been "lost in all of the attention paid to the heavy spending by Republican-oriented independent groups"—attention the paper has done more than any other news outlet to generate.) Likewise, The Washington Post reports that "Democratic candidates are getting the benefit of nearly half—46 percent—of independent spending," while enjoying a healthy advantage in official campaign spending (30 percent in House races, per the Times). The main function of independent spending favoring Republicans, says the Times, is to give challengers a chance at defeating well-funded, entrenched incumbents.

And that's a bad thing? Judging from the tone of a front-page story in Monday's Times, it is:

The anonymously financed conservative groups that have played such a crucial role this campaign year are starting a carefully coordinated final push to deliver control of Congress to Republicans….

Outside liberal groups and unions say they are stepping up their response in advertising and get-out-the-vote efforts, but remain largely outgunned by the scale and sophistication of the operation supporting Republican candidates.

A vivid picture of how outside groups are helping Republicans across the country can be found here in central Florida. The incumbent Democrat, Representative Suzanne M. Kosmas, had a nearly four-to-one fund-raising advantage over her Republican challenger, State Representative Sandy Adams, at the end of September.

Ms. Adams, low on cash, has not run a single campaign commercial. But a host of outside groups have swept in to swamp Ms. Kosmas with attack ads, helping establish Ms. Adams as the favorite without her having to spend on television….

Democrats said the conservative groups were upending some of their best-laid plans in several important races…

"As you know, they have been dumping tens of millions of dollars of secret money into these campaigns," Representative Chris Van Hollen of Maryland, the chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, said in an interview. "I would say the outside groups have shuffled the deck in a number of these races."…

In several cases, officials with the outside groups said, they intend to force Democrats to spend money in districts they presumed safe; in others, they said they would wipe out financial advantages Democratic incumbents were counting on to stave off strong challenges from underfinanced opponents.

For Team Donkey fans, I suppose, all of this is patently outrageous. But let's try to put aside partisan considerations (along with the benefits that might come from divided government). In light of the tremendous advantages enjoyed by sitting members of Congress and their alarmingly high re-election rates, don't we want a system where challengers have a better shot at defeating incumbents? One major criticism of campaign finance "reform," of course, is that it amounts to incumbent protection in disguise. But sincere believers in vigorous democracy should not be upset when politicians who thought their position was assured suddenly have to worry about getting re-elected.

Citizens United, by the way, is conspicuously absent from both of the Times stories, although it was prominently featured in the paper's earlier coverage of independent spending. Someone at the Times seems to have realized there is no connection between the Supreme Court decision, which overturned bans on "electioneering communications" and "express advocacy" by unions and corporations, and horrors like this:

American Crossroads, one of a pair of independent groups tied to Karl Rove, spent about $200,000 in mid-October on a television commercial attacking Mr. Murphy for his support of the health care overhaul.

The group's most recent filings with the election commission revealed $14.7 million in donations since September, two-thirds of which essentially came from two people, Bob Perry, a Houston home builder, and Robert B. Rowling, a billionaire from Dallas.

American Crossroads (unlike its 501(c)(4) spinoff, American Crossroads GPS) is organized under Section 527 of the Internal Revenue Code; such groups were legal before Citizens United. So was independent campaign spending by rich guys like Perry and Rowling.

The Post does mention Citizens United, but it notes that the freedom allowed by the decision is available to people of every political persuasion:

Conservative groups—boosted by donations from corporations, titans of industry and undisclosed sources—got a head start in taking advantage of the looser climate. Many liberal groups with smaller budgets were largely silent while Democratic candidates were pummeled on the airwaves.

But now Democratic allies are catching up, often by taking advantage of the same court rulings decried by Obama and other Democrats.

Unions, for example, are now able to use dues money to pay for targeted advertising spots in the weeks leading up to the Nov. 2 elections, something that would not have been possible before Citizens United. The option frees up money in the unions' political-action committees for other things, including last-minute donations to endangered Democrats.

I'm not sure it's accurate to say conservative groups "got a head start in taking advantage of the looser climate," since unions were the first organizations to venture into newly permitted express advocacy. But the Post is right that greater freedom of speech for independent groups takes power and influence away from the organizations that are accustomed to dominating the discussion:

The end result is far less control for political parties: About a third of all independent expenditures reported to the FEC this year comes from the two major parties, compared to 54 percent in 2008 and 80 percent in previous cycles.

Again, is that really a bad thing? Shouldn't good-government types welcome a greater diversity of voices?