Staff Columnist

Ernst doesn't really care about campaign cash

FILE - In this May 19, 2020, file photo, Sen. Joni Ernst, R-Iowa, speaks with reporters after a Senate Republican weekly
FILE - In this May 19, 2020, file photo, Sen. Joni Ernst, R-Iowa, speaks with reporters after a Senate Republican weekly luncheon on Capitol Hill in Washington. Four relatively unknown Iowa Democrats are competing in a primary Tuesday to take on Ernst. The endeavor was once viewed as a long shot. But Ernst’s slip in approval and the rallying of Iowa and national Democrats behind one of the four has the race receiving a second look. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky, File)

Iowa Democratic U.S. Senate candidate Theresa Greenfield has pledged, frequently, she won’t take “one dime” of corporate PAC money to fund her campaign. That helped her earn the endorsement of End Citizens United, a political reform group which subsequently spent more than $1 million attacking Greenfield’s opponent, Republican U.S. Sen. Joni Ernst.

For those of us who try to track our Wild West campaign finance landscape, from behind a rock, armed only with a spreadsheet, Greenfield’s pledge is political theatrics. We know money from corporations, business interests, wealthy executives, etc., seeps through every legal crack and gaping loophole. There are no neat boundaries. Just tons of cash everywhere.

Sure enough, it didn’t take Republicans long to find lobbyists with corporate clients, corporate employees and assorted PACS that take corporate bucks tucked among Greenfield’s donors. It took even less time for Ernst to hoist a TV ad calling Greenfield a liar.

“Greenfield’s taken over half a million dollars from corporate lobbyists, executives and CEOs. Lobbyists for drugmakers, insurance companies, even big oil,” the ad launched this month argues. “Ask yourself, why would Greenfield take so much from corporate lobbyists, then lie about it?”

But multiple fact-checkers concluded that Greenfield did in fact take no direct contributions from corporate PACs, so her pledge holds up. Direct is the key word.

Victory by technicality, perhaps. But give Greenfield credit for placing campaign finance reforms high on her agenda. Sure, voters’ eyes glaze over, just as yours might be now. But following all the cash leads to the origins of a lot of bad, even reckless, public policy. A dirty environment, unsafe workplaces, tax giveaways, etc.

And the unspoken lie in Ernst’s ad is that the senator, who has received $1.8 million from business PACs according to opensecrets.org, really gives a damn about where campaign money comes from.

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I’d submit a bigger issue than corporate PAC donations is campaigns playing footsie with so-called “independent” groups, super PACs, nonprofits, etc. When the Supreme Court handed down its Citizens United ruling in 2010, it argued that government limits on independent political spending weren’t needed to root out corruption, so long as groups don’t coordinate with candidates. It’s the same logic applied to a ruling the same year, in SpeechNow.org v. FEC, permitting unlimited donations to and spending by super PACs.

Last December, the Associated Press obtained documents showing a very cozy relationship between an outside group formed by Ernst’s aides and the Ernst campaign. The group, Iowa Values, was founded by a longtime Ernst consultant and shared a fundraiser with the campaign. The group’s address was listed as a condo owned by a former aide, an address it used while he still worked for Ernst.

Was there illegal coordination? Surely not.

Earlier this year, Lachlan Markay of the Daily Beast discovered that in the third quarter of 2019, Ernst stopped listing payroll for her individual campaign staffers and instead listed only payments to an outside HR firm handling payroll. It’s a lot easier to keep pesky reporters from finding out about any coordination by staff with outside groups if you keep their names secret. Ernst abandoned the practice.

Ernst’s campaign committee, Joni for Iowa, was fined $14,500 by the Federal Election Commission because it “did not timely refund, reattribute or redesignate” $37,190 in excessive, prohibited contributions to her 2014 campaign.

Ernst sponsored the ELECT Act, which would eliminate the presidential election campaign fund filled by $3 voluntary tax checkoffs. Ernst argues a candidate taking federal matching funds hasn’t won in 16 years, while losers spent $100 million in matching funds. Because, hey, only major parties running billion-dollar campaigns should be allowed to seek the presidency.

And yes, clearly, public funding is the real campaign money problem.

Meanwhile, dubious spending by outside groups funded by rich guys and undisclosed bucks is flowing into the state like sludge.

Already, outside groups have spent $16 million on the Iowa Senate race this cycle, according to opensecrets.org. That’s more than has been spent by the candidates.

The Senate Majority PAC, a PAC boosting Democratic Senate candidates, has spent $6.9 million for Greenfield during the primary and general election race. Senate Majority PAC received $8 million from Majority Forward, a left-leaning group that doesn’t disclose its donors.

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The National Republican Senatorial Committee has spent $3.6 million attacking Greenfield. Our friendly neighborhood Super PAC, Americas PAC, based in Marion, has spent $1.3 million boosting Ernst. One really rich guy from Chicago, Richard Uihlein, gave Americas PAC $5 million this cycle.

So nobody’s pure as the driven snow in this game. But this is the system conservatives wanted. If you don’t like it, Ernst and Republicans aren’t going to do anything about it.

Maybe you’d like to see more public campaign financing to offset the spending from benevolent billionaires. Well, we know how Ernst feels about that.

Maybe you’d like to see more transparency and disclosure. Ernst’s record speaks for itself.

If you’d like to truly see an end to Citizens United, you’re probably out of luck, especially after Ernst and her Republican colleagues packed the courts with conservatives.

So Greenfield’s pledge might be theatrics, but a Democratic Senate is far more likely to address these issues. Ernst is screaming “liar” from atop a growing mountain of campaign cash from all the business interests she’s served in the Senate.

(319) 398-8262; todd.dorman@thegazette.com

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