It only takes the slightest provocation these days to get Democrats to weep and gnash their teeth about their new disadvantage flowing from the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision. But if the 2012 elections thus far prove anything, it’s that our campaign finance laws have most altered not general elections, but Republican primaries.
Since the dawn of the modern media age, handicappers have measured the potential viability of an open-seat candidate by two factors: his or her preexisting name ID and fundraising potential. But the primaries of 2012 suggest those qualities take a back seat to a new factor—a candidate’s potential to attract help from well-heeled outside groups.
Even candidates with strong in-state fundraising networks struggle to overcome an influx of outside independent expenditures because of the onerous donation limits of the 2002 Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act. Candidates for Congress can only raise $2,500 for a primary from any one donor. This miniscule—and capped—increment makes it nearly impossible to answer a late, unexpected, six-figure media buy from a Super PAC or 501(c)(4) group with “native” money raised by a campaign.
Perhaps nowhere was this dynamic in as stark relief as in North Carolina’s recently concluded primary in the state’s 8th Congressional District. The Club for Growth’s Super PAC unexpectedly altered the primary landscape when it spent $450,000 to lift little-known Scott Keadle into second place and into a spot in the runof.
Keadle, who had little grassroots support and raised only $130,991 before the Club for Growth endorsed him, immediately became the candidate in the race with the greatest broadcast television presence. He rocketed from 4 percent in the polls to 22 percent on primary day, good enough for second place and a ticket to the runoff. Once there, Keadle was buoyed by another Club for Growth TV buy, not to mention significant hard-dollar bundling from Club members.
Richard Hudson was the top vote-getter in the primary on the strength of the largest enumerated grassroots network. Hudson, who had raised more from individual donors than anyone in the five-man field, looked like an underdog in the runoff on sheer resource differential.
But he, too, got late unexpected help from two outside entities, the American Action Network Inc. and Young Gun Action Fund. They combined to spend $700,000 in the runoff on mail and television—overpowering even the Club’s lavish spending—to propel Hudson to the nomination.
Similarly, Thomas Massie won the open-seat nomination in Kentucky’s 4th Congressional District on the strength of a brand-new, one-donor Super PAC. Ted Cruz kept up with David Dewhurst’s spending in the Texas Senate race thanks to help from a host of D.C.-based outside advertisers, and Richard Mourdock elbowed his way past Sen. Dick Lugar thanks to Super PACs evening the playing field on spending.
The opportunity for Super PACs and other outside advertisers to swing an election is greater in primaries for three reasons. First, the number of voters who decide these races is much smaller, and therefore the price tag of a campaign more modest. Secondly, while general elections begin with an electorate polarized along partisan lines and therefore hard to sway, the primary voter pool usually is open-minded and willing to consider every candidate. Third, the $2,500 giving limit from BCRA, and the absence of a party apparatus to augment candidate fundraising, means a targeted primary prey has little recourse to fend of a Super PAC predator.
The upshot lesson for the 2014 cycle is that plenty of candidates in competitive primaries will spend more time courting Super PAC decision-makers in Washington than donors or voters in their districts. If you don’t have personal money, and you don’t have a Super PAC, you won’t like your odds in an open seat.
The only way to reverse that gravitational pull is to eliminate or raise the $2,500 limit so candidates can fight back on their own. These new higher limits—they need to be 20-fold higher at least—could be coupled with instant, daily disclosure suited to the Internet age to replace the current disclosure standard that’s more akin to the Pony Express era.
The Democrats and self-styled reformers who passed McCain-Feingold in the first place will resist that fix. Ironically, that makes them the staunchest defenders of the primacy of outside moneyed entities. Those were he same entities Democrats said they wanted to take out of the political game.
When this election season is over, regardless of the outcome, Democrats will whine about Super PACs. But unless they’re prepared to give candidates more resources with higher limits, they won’t have the nerve to do anything about it.
Brad Todd is a founding partner of OnMessage, Inc. His clients have included Gov. Bobby Jindal, Gov. Rick Scott and Sen. Ron Johnson. This cycle, he’s advising Richard Hudson in North Carolina and a dozen other state and federal campaigns.
This article is part of a series of pieces offering 10 bold ideas for the future of political consulting. Read also: The future of direct mail is digital; The case for certified political managers; Money in politics: Time to embrace it; Challenging a new generation of consultants