Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage on
 

Big money lost, but don't be relieved

By Richard L. Hasen, Special to CNN
updated 2:32 PM EST, Fri November 9, 2012
U.S. gaming tycoon Sheldon Adelson, the biggest single donor in political history, poured tens of millions of dollars into campaigns in this election.
U.S. gaming tycoon Sheldon Adelson, the biggest single donor in political history, poured tens of millions of dollars into campaigns in this election.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Rick Hasen: Big money didn't buy the election, but it's still hugely influential
  • Ineffective spending limits let big donors influence lawmakers, skew priorities, he says
  • He says outside spending can't always buy elections, but it has good chance in close races
  • Hasen: Unidisclosed donors keep voters from seeing who backs candidates, deals

Editor's note: Richard L. Hasen is a professor at U.C. Irvine School of Law and author of "The Voting Wars: From Florida 2000 to the Next Election Meltdown." He also writes the Election Law Blog.

(CNN) -- Those who oppose the 2010 Citizens United Supreme Court ruling and the explosion of outside money in politics might be breathing a sigh of relief that more than $1 billion in outside spending in federal elections, which heavily favored Republicans, did not seem to buy the results that the big spenders wanted. After all, most of the candidates backed by Karl Rove's Crossroads groups and the Chamber of Commerce, beginning with Mitt Romney, lost their races. But those concerned about the role of money in politics shouldn't be relieved. Not at all. Here are three reasons to keep worrying:

1. The biggest problem with money in politics is not that it buys election results but that it skews legislative priorities. Senators and members of Congress already spend ridiculous amounts of time raising money for their next election campaigns and to help fellow party members get elected and stay in office. Big outside money is going to make this money chase worse. It is not enough to worry about what your opponent can raise; now a billionaire across the country can put a million or more dollars up against you at the drop of a hat any time you take a position that the billionaire doesn't like. The fund-raising frenzy will never cease.

Richard L. Hasen
Richard L. Hasen

This potential for massive outside spending -- which may reflect the preferences of just one or a handful of people -- will change how Congress considers and passes legislation. Sheldon Adelson, the casino magnate, dropped $60 million or more in this election without making a dent in his net worth. How many members of Congress do you think would be interested in supporting gaming legislation, which Adelson opposes? And if they want to oppose Adelson, members would have to raise even more outside money to try to level the playing field.

Become a fan of CNNOpinion
Stay up to date on the latest opinion, analysis and conversations through social media. Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion and follow us @CNNOpinion on Twitter. We welcome your ideas and comments.



Most worrisome when it comes to legislative skewing is what we as the public don't see: what gets left out of legislation, small favors buried in the fine print, things that get killed in committee. Sometimes a lot of money is riding on these invisible legislative choices.

2. Money still matters in campaigns. No serious student of American politics believes that the candidate with the most money always wins. After all, look at Linda McMahon, who spent more than $100 million of her own money in two bids to become senator for Connecticut. But money gets candidates second, third and fourth looks even when those candidates are lousy and don't deserve it. Consider Newt Gingrich in the Republican presidential primary. He survived as long as he did only because of the money from Adelson.

In close races, money can make a difference. Republican U.S. Rep. Dan Lungren of California lost a close contest in his race thanks in part to large amounts of outside spending against him. Not coincidentally, Lungren had been one of the first Republicans in recent years to call for campaign finance reform to curb the influence of outside money. A Sunlight Foundation analysis found at least four House races where outside money may have tipped the outcome.

At the presidential level, the unprecedented amount of outside money made the Obama-Romney race competitive, where it otherwise would not have been. While Obama succeeded in almost keeping up with the Republican fund-raising machine (and Obama also seemed to spend his campaign dollars more wisely), it is not clear that future Democratic candidates will be able to replicate the Obama fund-raising strategy, raising massive amounts of money from tens of millions of small donors. If big outside money in presidential elections leans toward corporate interests, it will give the candidates those interests back an edge in close elections.

3. Secret money is growing and dangerous. Thanks to holes in our disclosure laws, which Republicans in Congress so far have not seemed interested in fixing, much of this outside spending is going through groups who do not disclose their donors. The lack of disclosure is troubling for two reasons. First, voters use information about donors to evaluate campaign messages. Voters should know when Chevron or a big union is behind a "social welfare" group with a nice sounding name like "Americans for a Strong America."

Even more importantly, disclosure provides the press and public with tools to smoke out some legislative sweetheart deals that members of Congress might be offering big spenders. If we are going to be in a world without effective limits on campaign spending -- and the Supreme Court seems quite unlikely to reverse course on this point anytime soon -- disclosure is a second-best solution to try to limit the legislative leanings caused by large amounts of outside money. Sunlight can help expose the worst abuses of the political system wrought by unregulated money.

Rather than breathing easily, opponents of big, undisclosed outside money in politics need to continue to press the case for reform, beginning with a desperate need to fix our laws requiring disclosure by all who spend big bucks in our elections.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Richard Hasen.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 4:47 PM EDT, Fri April 18, 2014
Jim Bell says NASA's latest discovery support the notion that habitable worlds are probably common in the galaxy.
updated 2:17 PM EDT, Fri April 18, 2014
Jay Parini says even the Gospels skip the actual Resurrection and are sketchy on the appearances that followed.
updated 1:52 PM EDT, Fri April 18, 2014
Graham Allison says if an unchecked and emboldened Russia foments conflict in a nation like Latvia, a NATO member, the West would have to defend it.
updated 9:11 AM EDT, Fri April 18, 2014
John Sutter: Bad news, guys -- the pangolin we adopted is missing.
updated 1:10 PM EDT, Sat April 19, 2014
Ben Wildavsky says we need a better way to determine whether colleges are turning out graduates with superior education and abilities.
updated 6:26 AM EDT, Fri April 18, 2014
Charles Maclin, program manager working on the search and recovery of Malaysia Flight 370, explains how it works.
updated 8:50 AM EDT, Fri April 18, 2014
Jill Koyama says Michael Bloomberg is right to tackle gun violence, but we need to go beyond piecemeal state legislation.
updated 2:45 PM EDT, Thu April 17, 2014
Michael Bloomberg and Shannon Watts say Americans are ready for sensible gun laws, but politicians are cowed by the NRA. Everytown for Gun Safety will prove the NRA is not that powerful.
updated 9:28 AM EDT, Thu April 17, 2014
Ruben Navarrette says Steve Israel is right: Some Republicans encourage anti-Latino prejudice. But that kind of bias is not limited to the GOP.
updated 7:23 PM EDT, Wed April 16, 2014
Peggy Drexler counts the ways Phyllis Schlafly's argument that lower pay for women helps them nab a husband is ridiculous.
updated 12:42 PM EDT, Wed April 16, 2014
Rick McGahey says Rep. Paul Ryan is signaling his presidential ambitions by appealing to hard core Republican values
updated 11:39 AM EDT, Wed April 16, 2014
Paul Saffo says current Google Glasses are doomed to become eBay collectibles, but they are only the leading edge of a surge in wearable tech that will change our lives
updated 2:49 PM EDT, Tue April 15, 2014
Kathleen Blee says the KKK and white power or neo-Nazi groups give haters the purpose and urgency to use violence.
updated 7:56 AM EDT, Wed April 16, 2014
Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse and Rep. Henry Waxman say read deep, and you'll see the federal Keystone pipeline report spells out the pipeline is bad news
updated 7:53 AM EDT, Wed April 16, 2014
Frida Ghitis says President Obama needs to stop making empty threats against Russia and consider other options
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT