Skip to main content

How big money will buy 2014 races

By Errol Louis, CNN Commentator
updated 2:45 PM EST, Thu January 9, 2014
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Errol Louis: Supreme Court ruling that let corporations sway elections drew warnings
  • Louis: Obama, McCain were right to say ruling would allow outsize influence on democracy
  • Louis says in race after race, outside groups shaping outcomes
  • More than $25 million in outside money already raised for 2014 races, he says

Editor's note: Errol Louis is the host of "Inside City Hall," a nightly political show on NY1, a New York all-news channel.

(CNN) -- President Barack Obama and his 2008 Republican opponent, Sen. John McCain, disagree about lots of things, but one point they agree on is that the landmark 2010 Supreme Court ruling in the Citizens United v. FEC case -- which makes it easier for corporations, unions and other associations to spend freely to influence elections -- was a bad move for democracy that America would live to regret.

"This ruling opens the floodgates for an unlimited amount of special-interest money into our democracy " Obama said. "The last thing we need to do is hand more influence to the lobbyists in Washington or more power to the special interests to tip the outcome of elections."

McCain blasted the ruling as "arrogant, uninformed, naïve," calling it "the worst decision of the United States Supreme Court in the 21st century."

Errol Louis
Errol Louis

This year, both men will likely have the right to claim: told you so. In state after state, money -- much of it flowing from sources carefully shielded from public view -- has been pouring into local races in recent years, and is on track to shatter records in 2014.

That, in turn, will mean more business owners and union executives will flood the airwaves with campaign messages that threaten to drown out the voices of local citizens. As Obama put it, Citizens United "gives the special-interest lobbyists new leverage to spend millions on advertising to persuade elected officials to vote their way -- or to punish those who don't."

Indeed, just as Obama and McCain feared, within months of the Citizens United ruling, political operatives went to work, especially in the 24 states where limits on contributions by outside corporations and unions were struck down by the court.

How super PACs work
McCain: Corporations aren't people

Three years later, there's so much political cash flowing, and so many ways to shield its origins, that it's hard to arrive at a single figure on how much special-interest money is being spent.

In 2012, according to the Center for Public Integrity, political action committees, unions and other outside groups spent $209 million to influence the outcome of elections in 38 states.

A recently published analysis by The Washington Post and the Center for Responsive Politics estimates a network of 17 conservative groups pumped $407 million into local and national races in 2012, and unions spent a comparable $400 million on state, local and federal elections the same year.

Those big numbers translate into major impact on the ground:

• In New Hampshire, the Democratic Governors Association and national labor unions spent $9 million to help elect Maggie Hassan as governor.

• In North Carolina, conservative activist Art Pope parlayed the new rules into a set of victories that left the state with full Republican control of the state government for the first time since the 19th century.

• During last year's race for New York mayor, an outside group calling itself New York Is Not for Sale ran more than $1 million worth of ads against Christine Quinn, then the speaker of the City Council. Months of battering by the outside group took their toll: Quinn slipped in the polls, never recovered and went on to defeat in September.

• At the same time as New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie was locking down a record re-election win last year, outside groups spent $35 million to elect state legislators likely to thwart Republican Christie's agenda.

• In California, labor groups spent $130 million in local elections in 2012, while business groups spent $81 million -- and other $11 million came from a mysterious Arizona group that paid to help defeat a tax increase.

So many states have been swamped by funds that one reform group has identified what it calls puppet states -- places where most of the money spent on local elections comes from groups outside those states.

And although 2014 is only a few days old, the Center for Responsive Politics estimates that outside groups have already raised more than $25 million looking to influence congressional elections. That number is sure to swell as the weeks go by.

It will take concerned local effort to wrest control of local elections from the monied interests. The Supreme Court seems unlikely to change its mind and reverse the Citizens United ruling. That leaves it up to the rest of us to demand more disclosure by outside groups -- and to tell politicians, in no uncertain terms, that candidates supported by outside expenditure groups will be viewed as part of the problem in a democracy where the voices of citizens are being drowned out by the roar of the moneymen.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Errol Louis.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 9:17 AM EDT, Wed April 23, 2014
Alexander Motyl says as Russian President Putin snarled at Ukraine, his foreign minister was signing a conciliatory accord with the West. Whatever the game, the accord is a major stand down by Russia
updated 8:29 AM EDT, Wed April 23, 2014
Les Abend says at every turn, the stowaway teen defied the odds of discovery and survival. What pilot would have thought to look for a person in the wheel well?
updated 6:47 PM EDT, Tue April 22, 2014
Q & A with artist Rachel Sussman on her new book of photographs, "The Oldest Living Things in the World."
updated 3:58 PM EDT, Tue April 22, 2014
Martin Blaser says the overuse of antibiotics threatens to deplete our bodies of "good" microbes, leaving us vulnerable to an unstoppable plague--an "antibiotic winter"
updated 1:37 PM EDT, Tue April 22, 2014
John Sutter asks: Is it possible to eat meat in modern-day America and consider yourself an environmentalist without being a hypocrite?
updated 11:38 AM EDT, Tue April 22, 2014
Sally Kohn notes that Meb Keflezighi rightly was called an American after he won the Boston Marathon, but his status in the U.S. once was questioned
updated 8:56 AM EDT, Tue April 22, 2014
Denis Hayes and Scott Denman say on this Earth Day, the dawn of the Solar Age is already upon us and the Atomic Age of nuclear power is in decline
updated 4:36 PM EDT, Mon April 21, 2014
Retired Coast Guard officer James Loy says a ship captain bears huge responsibility.
updated 1:08 PM EDT, Mon April 21, 2014
Peter Bergen says the latest strikes are part of an aggressive U.S. effort to target militants, including a bomb maker
updated 9:45 AM EDT, Mon April 21, 2014
Cynthia Lummis and Peter Welch say 16 agencies carry out national intelligence, and their budgets are top secret. We need to know how they are spending our money.
updated 8:35 AM EDT, Mon April 21, 2014
Julian Zelizer says President Obama knows more than anyone that he has much at stake in the midterm elections.
updated 8:55 AM EDT, Tue April 22, 2014
Eric Sanderson says if you really want to strike a blow for the environment--and your health--this Earth Day, work to get cars out of cities and create transportation alternatives
updated 10:08 AM EDT, Mon April 21, 2014
Bruce Barcott looks at the dramatic differences in marijuana laws in Colorado and Louisiana
updated 4:47 PM EDT, Fri April 18, 2014
Jim Bell says NASA's latest discovery supports 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 2:25 PM EDT, Mon April 21, 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.
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT