A political wasteland, courtesy of big spenders from beyond our borders
But don't expect the system to change
What a waste.
That’s been the most common sentiment I’ve heard, both from Republicans and Democrats, when talk turns to the pile of money blown on Iowa’s hard-fought, just-mercifully-completed U.S. Senate race. Most galling is the $61.7 million poured into the state by a very long list of outside groups, PACs and SuperPACs, both liberal and conservative, according to the Center for Responsive Politics’ opensecrets.org
A waste, because so much of that cash pile was spent turning our TVs into landfills where Iowans’ hopes for a campaign about their problems and thoughtful solutions were buried in a thick layer of sludge. Nearly $45 million was spent on ads and other efforts to oppose either Republican Joni Ernst or Democrat Bruce Braley.
In other words, $45 million was spent to make us wince.
Six outside groups, three conservative, three liberal, spent more than $4 million each, and a total of 20 groups spent more than $500,000. Of those 20 groups, nine offer only partial or no disclosure of donors.
To put this in perspective, if you take that outside money and divide it by the number of hours between March 25, the fateful day Ernst’s “squeal” ad was released and Braley’s Texas Grassley video hit, and the end of Election Day, it comes to $11,429.70 per hour.
Divide it by the 1,073,383 Iowans who voted for Ernst or Braley, and you’ll find outside groups spent $57.50 per vote.
More was spent by outsiders here on ads, calls, mailers and other electioneering than the state’s general fund budget spends on Iowa’s Department of Agriculture and Department of Natural Resources in an entire fiscal year. Outside bucks could cover the United Way of Eastern Iowa’s annual fundraising campaign roughly six times over.
A waste. But that’s not even what bothers me the most.
What bothers me is that these groups marched in and set the agenda of Iowa’s campaign. They dictated its awful tone. They crowded out its potential for meaningful debate and replaced it with trivial gotcha attacks, shrill scare tactics and misleading accusations. They drowned out our voices, dumped all the mud on us money could buy and disappeared into the ether.
Where did all that money come from?
Look at the top two outside groups, the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, which spent $9.9 million in Iowa, and the National Republican Senatorial Campaign Committee, which spent $7.1 million. These two groups combined to raise more than $11 million in California and roughly $12 million in New York. Massachusetts donors kicked in $4.5 million.
Senate Majority PAC, a liberal group that spent $5.3 million in Iowa, got $2 million from Michael Bloomberg. American Crossroads, a conservative SuperPAC that spent $5 million in Iowa, counts million-dollar-plus donors from California, Kentucky, Arkansas, New York and Texas.
California billionaire Tom Steyer personally bankrolled NextGen Climate Action, which spent $5.4 million in Iowa. Kansas billionaires Charles and David Koch founded Freedom Partners in Action PAC, which spent $4.5 million in Iowa.
So Champagne corks were popping all over the country when the Iowa’s results rolled in and one side of the money mountain could claim a big victory. We, too, might heartily celebrate their departure from our TV screens, if it wasn’t so certain that they’ll all be back to build an even bigger mountain ahead of 2016.
And what might really drive you to drink is the realization that it’s highly unlikely this awful system will change one bit any time soon.
Sure, there’s been lots of talk of a U.S. constitutional amendment overriding the Supreme Court’s landmark Citizens United decision, the ruling that opened the floodgates to outside bucks. You can find any number of elaborate public financing systems, potentially matching small donations with government bucks.
But I don’t see any of this stuff getting much political traction. It’s tough to amend the Constitution, thank goodness.
One reader floated the possibility of giving voters a “none-of-the-above” option that might make groups think twice about alienating voters with negative tactics.
Another argued that “instant-runoff” or “ranked choice” voting would help, by allowing voters to pick a first and second choice. Harshly attacking an opponent might hurt a candidate’s hopes of being the second choice of his opponent’s supporters.
Folks are thinking about this stuff, which is encouraging.
Much less sexy is good old full disclosure. But if you’re like me, highly sympathetic to the notion that political bucks are a form of free speech while simultaneously horrified by what the advance of that notion has wrought, disclosure is where you end up.
Every penny spent to influence an election in this country should be publicly disclosed. Fast and accurate. Easily accessible and searchable. The dark money dodge by “social welfare” groups using our squishy tax code to keep donors secret should have ended yesterday. No matter what else happens, turning on the lights is step one.
With the technology currently in my coat pocket, I should be able to pick a list of candidates and groups, state or federal, and receive alerts when they receive donations. If the agencies watching this stuff have limitations that prevent full, detailed, instant disclosure, our leaders should find the money. Lord knows outside groups backing them have plenty.
Maybe we ought to slap a tax on campaign expenditures and use the money to create a superpowered disclosure system. At $11,429.70 per hour, we’d have the money in no time.
At the very least, I hope what we just witnessed and what we’re about to see in 2016 raises our ire enough to raise the profile of these issues and spark real calls for action. If we choose to tune out instead of taking back our elections, that would be an even bigger waste.
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