Washington — It’s just a coincidence, but Tuesday night’s first televised debate in Louisiana among the top three candidates for the U.S. Senate took place just hours before the deadline for those candidates to file their quarterly campaign finance reports with the Federal Election Commission.
Chances are no one was thinking about that when the candidates were asked about the changing landscape of elections financing and what, if anything, should be done about it.
Rob Maness, the tea party Republican who is brand new to running for elective office, said he already has learned that politics “is a racket, for sure.”
“There’s too much money involved,” he said, “but the federal government shouldn’t get further involved by limiting our free speech.”
Maness said he supports the U.S. Supreme Court’s game-changing Citizens United decision of 2010, which opened the floodgates to corporations and individuals making unlimited contributions to political groups seeking to influence the outcome of federal elections — so long as those so-called outside groups don’t coordinate their activities with the candidates’ official campaigns. The result has been a torrent of spending.
Mary Landrieu, the Democratic incumbent, took the opposite view — which is not surprising, considering that she voted with her fellow Senate Democrats last month for a constitutional amendment to overturn Citizens United and allow for the re-imposition of contribution restrictions. That effort failed because of Republican opposition.
“Corporations are not people,” she said, invoking a catchphrase critics apply to the U.S. Supreme Court decision. “They should not be given unlimited rights to speech. The richer you are, the louder you get to speak.
“This really distorts our democracy,” she said. “You can see it playing out in this exact race in Louisiana.”
Landrieu attacked the billionaire Koch brothers for spending on advertising to help elect her leading Republican challenger, U.S. Rep. Bill Cassidy, of Baton Rouge. Cassidy responded by saying Landrieu is benefiting from more outside advertising than he is. He said he’d like more transparency: The National Rifle Association may be advertising for him, he said, but you know where that money is coming from; Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., is behind the spending by the pro-Landrieu group Patriot Majority, Cassidy claimed, but you can’t tell that from the commercials.
A candidate’s official campaign cannot take money from corporations and must disclose the source of any individual contribution over $200, as well as all expenditures. Contributions can’t exceed certain maximums.
The outside groups fall into several different categories.
Contributions to political action committees are limited, and a PAC must disclose its donors and expenditures. Super PACs can accept unlimited contributions but must disclose the contributions and expenditures. So-called dark-money groups must report expenditures but don’t have to disclose donors, so long as the organization devotes a majority of its efforts to nonpolitical “social welfare” activities. And groups that run “issue ads” — commercials that praise or criticize federal candidates but don’t explicitly call for their victory or defeat — don’t have to report anything to the FEC unless their commercials air within 30 days of a primary or 60 days of a general election (Federal Communications Commission rules do require piecemeal accounts of spending on issue ads).
As of Wednesday, outside groups spent $7.3 million either for Landrieu or against Cassidy, according to OpenSecrets.org, which bases its figures on FEC reports. Spending for Cassidy or against Landrieu totaled $4.3 million. In addition, outside spending specifically supporting Maness amounted to just under $400,000, all from a PAC.
Patriot Majority spent just over $2 million on Landrieu’s side — but it’s a social-welfare organization and doesn’t disclose its donors, Reid or otherwise. The NRA PAC spent $1.7 million to help Cassidy — but a dark-money NRA affiliate spent more than $500,000 for him, too.
The Koch brothers’ Americans for Prosperity dark-money group also shows up in the FEC reports, although just for $280,000: AFP spent money earlier in the campaign on issue ads, but that was outside the FEC’s reporting windows.
If, as seems likely, no candidate wins a majority Nov. 4, the top two finishers — expected to be Landrieu and Cassidy — will meet in a runoff Dec. 6. And if partisan control of the U.S. Senate hangs in the balance, much more money almost certainly will pour into Louisiana from outside groups. Some have already reserved millions of dollars’ worth of TV commercial time for after Nov. 4.
Gregory Roberts is chief of the Washington bureau. Follow him on Twitter, @GregRobertsDC.
For more coverage of government and politics, follow The Advocate Politics Blog at http://blogs.theadvocate.com/politicsblog .