The Koch brothers are prepared to try to buy the 2012 election. And if they do, they’ll be following a model that liberals like George Soros created but have since abandoned, leaving the big money in elections to the Republicans. Here’s how it happened.
In federal elections, the term “soft money” generally refers to money from corporate or union treasuries–money that was not willfully contributed by individuals for the express purpose of contributing to candidates and political parties–and money from donors in excess of the federal maximum contributions. Political parties and the national campaign committees like the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee or the Republican National Committee were once able to raise soft money, but it could not be mingled with “hard money” of the type that can do to candidates. Soft money could also not be used for “express advocacy,” the kinds of paid communication that urges a vote for or against a candidate; ads that say something negative about a politician and then give some kind of message to contact the politician to complain are generally soft-money ads.
For many years Democrats–in large part because of the strategic commitment of organized labor–were able to raise more soft money than were Republicans. The McCain-Feingold campaign finance laws passed before the 2004 election took away that advantage; it became illegal for political parties and national campaign committees to use soft money or coordinate any activities with entities that were raising and spending soft money.
As the 2004 election approached, Democrats had a problem: they had soft money, but the parties could no longer use it. To take advantage of this resource, a group of Democratic operatives led by long-time Clinton ally Harold Ickes created a cluster of groups that spent roughly $140 million on media (The Media Fund) and get-out-the-vote operations (America Coming Together [ACT]) that did not coordinated with but nevertheless helped the Democratic campaigns, in particular John Kerry’s presidential campaign. About $25 million of that money came from financier George Soros, which made the right wing apoplectic, and has fueled conspiracy theories ever since.
The rich liberals like Soros–wrongly, in my opinion–viewed their foray in to soft money electioneering independent of the political parties as a failure. In 2005 Soros and many of his ultra-wealthy liberal allies decided to shift their giving away from election-oriented spending to “movement building.” Many of them became involved in The Democracy Alliance, which set out to spend $200 million over five years in an effort to match the conservative think tanks, propaganda operations, talent banks and issue-campaign apparatus. From the start the Democracy Alliance has been criticized for a muddled agenda, questionable management and for heaping money on already-existing mainstream organizations and not significantly and in a sustained manner building up a progressive infrastructure capable of effectively offsetting the vast right-wing conspiracy. Because of their secrecy, it’s hard to determine how much the Democracy Alliance has raised and how the money has been spent. While it’s helped some organizations, it’s hard to see how progressive organizations are in a significantly stronger position today than in 2005.
Then Citizen’s United happened. Many misunderstand its impact on politics. Corporate money wasn’t suddenly unleashed on US politics. The mostly Soros/labor-funded independent operations in 2004 were fueled by soft money addressed by Citizen’s United. Citizens United also didn’t change what monies can be accepted by federal candidates and political parties, and it’s still against campaign finance laws for independent expenditure operations to coordinate with candidates or parties. The main difference is that the independent expenditure operations can now use soft money to engage in express advocacy, the “vote for/vote against” messages that previously couldn’t be funded by soft money.
Citizens United is a bad decision that’s bad for American democracy, but it can’t be fully blamed for the onslaught of advertising that happened in 2010. Much of what conservatives did to attack Democrats was permitted prior to Citizen’s United. The problem for Democrats is that liberals looked at their 2004 operation and viewed it a failure because John Kerry didn’t win, whereas conservatives looked at it and saw that John Kerry received 8 million more votes than Al Gore, largely because of the electioneering done by ACT and the Media Fund. Liberals largely abandoned big soft-money operations after 2004, while conservatives began to emulate it, first in 2008 on behalf of Congressional candidates, and then in a huge way in 2010, that time also taking full advantage of the new opportunities for express advocacy created by Citizen’s United.
Democrats have already been worrying about a repeat of 2010, in which conservative probably spent about seven times more on independent ads and voter contact than did liberals. Now, the Koch brothers have made an audacious and astonishing pledge that should deeply worry every Democrat in America:
The billionaire industrialist brothers David and Charles Koch plan to steer more than $200 million — potentially much more — to conservative groups ahead of Election Day, POLITICO has learned. That puts their libertarian-leaning network in the same league as the most active of the groups in the more establishment-oriented network conceived last year by veteran GOP operatives Rove and Ed Gillespie, which plans to raise $240 million.
The Koch’s alone intend to spend ten times what Soros spent in 2004, and more than what the entire liberal soft money operation spent that election, and that’s less than half the independent money conservatives intend to spend in 2012. Liberals spent under $140 million in 2004 and couldn’t engage in express advocacy, but in 2012 conservatives plan on spending approximately half a billion dollars on more effective forms of voter contact.
I continue to believe Barack Obama is more likely to win than any Republican he could face next November; the Republicans are weak, they have been pushed by their radical base far from the national mainstream, and demographics are on our side. I think Democrats have a solid chance to regain control of the House, and face a tough battle for control of the Senate, but I think they’ll hold on. But along with the persistently poor economy–kept bad by Republican sabotage in Congress–the conservative soft-money advantage is the biggest threat to the reelection of Barack Obama and Democratic control of Congress.
Rick Perlstein, John Judis and others have chronicled how over the last 50 years conservative mega-donors built up the conservative political, communications and policy apparatus and funded the election of reactionary Republicans. They have been ruthless and unrelenting. They have stepped up to influence the 2012 election. Whether their liberal counterparts among the mega-wealthy will do the same may determine whether Barack Obama has a Democratic congress or a President Romney or Perry leads a tea party government.