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Who Will Save the Poor Incumbents From the Super PAC Onslaught?

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Today's New York Times tells the heart-rending story of U.S. representatives who run for re-election but don't necessarily win. Who is responsible for this disturbing development? Apparently a bunch of rich guys who give money to super PACs that advertise against members of Congress. The Times says one super PAC in particular is "increasing Congress's sense of insecurity": the Houston-based Campaign for Primary Accountability, which is "targeting incumbents in both parties," including Rep. Jean Schmidt (R-Ohio), a four-term legislator who lost her primary fight on Tuesday to Brad Wenstrup, "a doctor and Iraq war veteran who has never held political office," even though "she was expected to prevail." This sort of surprise makes politicians "nervous," the Times reports, quoting Rep. Jeff Fortenberry (R-Neb.) as an example:

People are very cynical toward the institution. That's shown in our 11 percent approval rating. It used to be that the individual member was a bit immune to that and it was the institution itself that suffered. But I do think that is transferring now unto the individual members.

Say it ain't so! Have these super PACs no sense of decency? "Obviously," says Rep. Jo Bonner (R-Ala.), a five-term congressman annoyed by critical ads, "when the Supreme Court made their decision to open up corporate war chests, this is the result." Not so obviously, it turns out. Super PACs, which can spend as much as they want on express advocacy as long as they do not coordinate with candidates, are indeed a product of Citizens United v. FEC, the 2010 case in which the Supreme Court lifted restrictions on political speech by corporations, combined with a subsequent appeals court ruling and an FEC decision. According to the Times, however, the leading donors to the Campaign for Primary Accountability are not corporations but individuals, who have always been free to spend their own money on political advocacy.

"Members say there is little they can do to stop the onslaught of third-party activity," the Times reports. Can it really be that they have no recourse, that they just have to let people criticize them? This attitude reminds me of George Will's observation in a recent column that advocates of stricter speech regulations refer to super PACs as "outside groups." Will's reply: "Outside of what? Is the political process a private club with the parties and candidates controlling membership?"

The Times does give the president of the Campaign for Primary Accountability, Curtis Ellis, a chance to defend his group's cruel efforts to upset the expectations of innocent incumbents. "It is hard to raise the money you need to challenge an incumbent," Ellis says. "This is why we are using this new tool given to us by the Supreme Court to equalize the playing field for challengers." But the Times evidently could not locate a single independent observer who thinks Congress could benefit from a bit more insecurity and nervousness, given that incumbent legislators have a huge built-in advantage against challengers, as reflected in the fact that House members routinely get re-elected at rates of more than 90 percent. Even in 2010, when the Democrats suffered historically large losses and Republicans took control of the chamber, the re-election rate was 85 percent.

Addendum: Earlier today Katherine Mangu-Ward noted that the Campaign for Primary Accountability counterintuitively supported Rep. Dennis Kucinich (D-Ohio), who despite his 15 years in the House counted as a challenger because he was running against Rep. Marcy Kaptur (D-Ohio) for the Democratic nomination in a newly redrawn congressional district. He lost.