Unlike billionaires such as the Koch Brothers and Tom Steyer, who spend hundreds of millions on national races, wealthy donors can buy tremendous influence over state and local elections for just tens of thousands. And they have turned their sights to governorships, mayoralties – even local school boards.
After Citizens United: The Story in the States is the first report to assess in comprehensive detail the transformative effect the 2010 Supreme Court ruling had on state and local elections across the country. The verdict? Outside spenders now have more power to influence elections than at any other period since Watergate. This is partly because weak regulation of coordination between candidates and the type of “independent” spending groups Citizens United unleashed has allowed those independent groups to act as de-facto arms of their campaigns.
Some of the states that the report concludes have the weakest regulation of coordination, like Florida, Ohio, and Pennsylvania, face competitive gubernatorial and legislative elections this year.
“At the local level, you don’t need to be a Koch brother to be a kingmaker,” writes report author Chisun Lee.
Among the key takeaways:
- Local offices – governorships, mayoralties and local school boards can be bought with a much smaller investment. It is possible for a single funder to dominate the discourse and machinery of politics in a way not seen at the federal level.
- What is going on around the country four years after Citizens United is proof that the Court’s entire conception of money in politics is flawed. Far from acting independently, unlimited outside spenders are working “hand in glove” with candidates, using new methods that slip past outdated laws.
- These include: Candidate-specific groups, like one formed by a former communications director for Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel, which is raising money to support his bid for re-election, including nearly $1 million on one day in June. Candidates soliciting sums for outside groups supporting them, such as Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker soliciting donations for a nonprofit group that then advertised to support him. Candidates collaborating with outside groups on messaging, or even using the same consultants, as with Florida Gov. Rick Scott, who has appeared in multiple television ads paid for by an independent group called “Let’s Get to Work,” whose name is also a Scott campaign slogan.
- Until there is a new Court and a new jurisprudence, limiting the overriding influence of big money will require preserving the campaign finance system that remains, and supporting reforms, like contribution limits, public financing and disclosure, that are still permitted by the Court. Ultimately, a comprehensive solution to curtail candidate-specific super-PACs and ban “McConnelling” (explained here by Jon Stewart), like the Price-Van Hollen bill, will be required for such reforms to succeed. States and cities can start adopting those solutions now, and some already are.
“In Citizens United, the Court said that the unlimited spending it was unleashing would be independent. Now we know that’s not true.” said Lawrence Norden, deputy director of the Brennan Center for Justice. “The facts undermine the assumptions on which the Court based rulings like Citizens United. This poses a major problem for average voters looking to have their voices heard.”
“Our research shows that Citizens United’s corrosive effect on state and local elections is many cases even worse than on federal elections,” said report author Chisun Lee. “But as states and cities face new challenges in stemming the overwhelming influence of big money, there is also opportunity at the state and local level for new approaches to restore power to average voters that are not possible in a gridlocked Congress.”