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“What Donors Want”: They Helped Elect A New Class Of Congress Members; Now What?

When the 114th Congress convenes on Tuesday, lawmakers won’t merely be thinking of the voters who put them in office. They’ll also be mindful of the donors who helped them reach those voters in the first place.

The 2014 midterm elections cost some $3.7 billion, according to the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics. That’s a lot of moneyed interests to consider, and sometimes they aren’t pulling lawmakers in the same direction. What’s a senator to do, for example, if the small-government Koch groups see a federal spending plan as too lavish while the U.S. Chamber of Commerce thinks of it as a win for business?

Scott Reed, a top political adviser for the Chamber, had this take on donor expectations: “We don’t expect the candidates we endorsed to line up 100 percent with us, but we’d like to get them in the 80 percent range.”

Here’s a look at what’s on some donor wish lists—and how they intersect and conflict with each other.

The Koch brothers want an authentic spending fight

Billionaire energy executives Charles and David Koch have a network of advocacy groups that sunk at least $150 million into last year’s elections. They want their senators to be soldiers for less government spending.

“What I want these candidates to do is to support a balanced budget,” David Koch told Barbara Walters in an ABC interview in December. “I’m very worried that if the budget is not balanced that inflation could occur and the economy of our country could suffer terribly.”

Tim Phillips, president of Americans for Prosperity, the most active nonprofit in the Koch alliance, said his group won’t be shy about calling out lawmakers who take their eye off this spending ball. Phillips predicted chafing between deficit hawks like his group and others that might be willing to sacrifice purity if it means getting their preferred projects funded.

The Chamber of Commerce wants the government to invest in infrastructure

That makes the Chamber, which put up $35 million to usher into office more business-minded Republicans, a potential foe to the Kochs’ top objective. The group spent most of its money on primary contests and notched a win rate of 14 out of 15 candidates, Reed said. The goal was to elect Republicans who are “committed to governing,” he said.

“What we did not want,” he said, “are the candidates who say, ‘Let’s get to D.C. so we can shut the damn place down.'”

The Chamber thinks Republicans should be prepared to fund infrastructure, even featuring that message in some of its candidate advertisements last year. “The key ingredients to thriving free enterprise are roads, bridges and tunnels,” Reed said.

Crossroads wants to avoid messy clashes that could ding the GOP image ahead of 2016 

The Chamber can probably count on Karl Rove’s powerful Crossroads political groups as an ally. They’re driven far less by ideology than by party politics. That makes sense: Rove was former President George W. Bush’s top strategist, earning the nickname “Bush’s brain.” The Crossroads enterprise spent $100 million on the 2014 races, according to American Crossroads President Steven Law, and wants more than anything to put the party in a good position for the 2016 presidential election.

“Voters expect constructive action, not obstructionism. They want Washington to work and lawmakers to get things done,” Rove wrote in his post-election column in the Wall Street Journal. “Their expectations are low because their distrust of politicians is high. So surprise them. The rewards will be great if the GOP shows it has a governing agenda.”

Translation: Crossroads wants to keep senators from doing politically damaging things that might cost seats or, worse, the presidency in 2016. To that end, Crossroads will spend much of 2015 providing Republican leaders with research to advise them how to broaden the party’s appeal and what kinds of legislation voters would like to see. “There’s an appetite for constructive change, not reflexive opposition,” Law said.

As for any looming fiscal battles, “we strongly support spending restraint,” Law said. “But where we differ with some of the other groups is in tactics.” He said shutting down the government in protest of Obama’s health care law is a prime example of the kind of “colossal failure” he hopes Republican lawmakers will avoid. “You have to think through what you’re going to get for it. We’d be concerned about shutdown gambits that would tarnish the brand.”

Law, like many representatives of the political money groups, will make the rounds on Tuesday, congratulating the new members and attending various parties in their honor. “Everyone we were helpful to has been very kind about letting us know they appreciated our role,” he said.

Sheldon Adelson seeks the death of online gambling

A billionaire casino executive, Adelson wants to stop what he sees as the scourge of online gambling. He argues it’s not about the bottom line for his international gambling empire, but rather it’s an issue of morality because kids can get hooked on betting. Three states have already legalized online gambling, but Congress could step in with a federal ban. That’s what Adelson has pushed for through a Washington advocacy group he started in 2014.

Although some have argued that it’s too late for action, Adelson isn’t just anyone—he’s a megadonor. In addition to pumping more than $90 million into the 2012 presidential election, he spent $5 million last year to elect Republican House members. Politico reports he may have funneled tens of millions more through nonprofit groups that don’t disclose their donors.

Coal Country wants a return to power

The coal industry demonstrated last year that it can still fuel election turnout. Incoming Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell used a pro-coal message to pad his win in Kentucky. More than one-third of McConnell’s TV ads in his race against Democrat Alison Lundergan Grimes invoked his pro-coal stance, and voter turnout showed the message hit home: He improved his vote totals throughout the state’s coal counties.

The pro-coal theme also played well in West Virginia, where Republican Shelley Moore Capito defeated a Democratic opponent. The American Chemistry Council, American Energy Alliance and United Mine Workers of America Power PAC all weighed in with campaign money and election-time advertising. They’ll be after lawmakers to push back on President Barack Obama’s new regulations limiting smog, which were seen as a direct hit on the coal industry.

Black pastors bought themselves an unlikely friend

Weighing in at just $183,340 in contributions, All Citizens for Mississippi certainly wasn’t the election cycle’s biggest super-PAC. But it packed an important punch. The group worked to motivate African Americans to head to the polls in support of Republican Senator Thad Cochran, who was facing a surprisingly tough primary challenge from the right. The super-PAC, led by a black minister, put out radio ads warning that Cochran opponent Chris McDaniel would be bad for race relations.

Bishop Ronnie Crudup of the New Horizon Church International, who started the super-PAC, said its work on behalf of Cochran erased any doubt about the importance of Mississippi’s African American voters. Crudup said he’s had post-election conversations with Cochran. “The senator knows that African Americans stepped up for him, and I can’t put words in his mouth, but he has made good, affirmative statements that he appreciates the support.”

On Crudup’s wish list: better funding for historically black colleges and universities, policies that bring jobs to Mississippi and federal funding for workforce development. And there’s the issue of Obamacare. Crudup said he’d be very disappointed if Cochran tries to obliterate what he sees as a law that has been particularly helpful in getting African Americans health insurance coverage. “I think that our senator understands his constituents, black and white, depend on that service,” Crudup said.

 

By: Julie Bykowicz, Thank You Notes, Bloomberg Politics, January 5, 2015

January 8, 2015 Posted by | Campaign Financing, Mega-Donors | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“Most Likely To Exceed”: The Supreme Court’s Cash Gift To Republican Candidates

The instant the Supreme Court demolished overall donation limits in April, the money burst forth from the dam. As The Washington Post reported this morning, more than 300 donors immediately wrote checks beyond the old limit of $123,200, adding $11.6 million to the political system that would not have been allowed earlier.

And unsurprisingly, twice as much of that money went to Republican candidates and their committees than to Democrats.

Before the court’s McCutcheon decision, in a two-year election cycle donors could not give more than $48,600 to candidates and $74,600 to parties and political committees. The original idea of the limit was to make sure that donors could not spread so much cash around to a party and its candidates as to become indispensible to an entire wing of American politics.

The court’s ruling, continuing in its absurd line of reasoning that such limits violate the First Amendment, effectively raised the overall limits to $3.6 million per election cycle, and many donors seem determined to approach that ugly new milestone.

One donor told The Post that he has given to 39 political action committees, 25 Senate candidates and 16 House candidates just this year.

Another, in an admission of charming if depressing naïveté, explained why he has given $177,000 to Republican congressional candidates in the last few months. “You have to realize, when you start contributing to all these guys, they give you access to meet them and talk about your issues,” said the donor, Andrew Sabin of New York, who owns a precious-metals refining business. “They know that I’m a big supporter.” Already, he boasted, he has received personal visits from Senator Ted Cruz of Texas and Gov. Rick Scott of Florida.

The candidates know which donors are most likely to exceed the old limits — some of them have familiar names like Adelson, Koch, and Soros — and are hitting them up hard, undoubtedly listening in earnest to whatever interests the donors have in Washington.

Small donors have no place in this intimate relationship. And yet, as an article in The Times this morning pointed out, they could have a much larger role if only they weren’t drowned out by the big guys. Last year’s New York City mayoral election, the first since 1997 without a self-financed billionaire on the ticket, was “the most wide-open” city election since the public financing system began 25 years ago. The system provides a matching incentive for candidates to raise small donations, which significantly increased the level of competition in city races last year.

Similar systems have been rejected in Albany and in Washington, largely by Republicans. Looking at the numbers, it’s easy to see why.

 

By: David Firestone, Taking Note, The Editorial Page Editors Blog, The New York Times, September 2, 2014

September 3, 2014 Posted by | Campaign Financing, Politics, Supreme Court | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“Easy And Instant Voting”: A Great Idea Whose Time Has Come, Again

Forty years ago, at a point when Americans were profoundly concerned about declining voter participation, democracy advocates proposed a fix: “instant voting.”

To remove barriers and increase participation in elections, the argument went, officials should make it possible for citizens to show up at a polling place, register to vote and then cast a ballot.

Instead of jumping through registration and participation hoops over a period of weeks, even months, people could just vote.

A handful of states—Maine, Minnesota and Wisconsin—began to implement the idea and something exciting happened: turnout soared.

But the approach was controversial.

In my home state of Wisconsin, then-Governor Pat Lucey implemented the reform.

Lucey, who died last week at age 96, was a remarkable figure. He helped build the modern Democratic Party of Wisconsin, ushering an an era of two-party competition for a state where in the mid-1950s virtually every top official was a Republican. He was close to the Kennedys, playing especially important roles in the John Kennedy’s 1960 presidential run and Bobby Kennedys 1968 race. He bid for the vice presidency in 1980 as the running mate of liberal Republican John Anderson on a “national unity” ticket. As a prominent realtor in Wisconsin, he championed open housing as a part of a broad commitment to civil rights. As governor, he forged a strong university system, established fair and equitable funding for public schools, reformed criminal justice and the courts, fostered labor-management cooperation and economic growth, and appointed the first woman to the state Supreme Court.

But some of Lucey’s greatest accomplishments were as a political reformer, who championed open government and campaign finance reform—and who fought to make it easy to vote.

Pat Lucey believed in high-turnout elections. And Lucey was enough of a structural reformer to recognize that policies could contribute to making lofty rhetoric about popular democracy into an Election Day reality. Indeed, his support for Election Day voter registration was so significant that it helped to make this particular reform central to a national debate about how to expand the electorate.

In the mid-1970s, Lucey and his legislative allies moved to enact what the national media referred to as “instant voting”—a new set of rules designed to allow citizens to simply show up at a polling place, register and cast a ballot. This was a radical change from the restrictive rules that were in place in much of the country, many of which had their roots in the machinations of big-city bosses and Southern segregationists who were disinclined toward expanding the electorate.

When Wisconsin enacted rule changes to remove barriers to voting, it was national news. The New York Times highlighted Wisconsin’s 1975 plan for “easy and instant voting.” Critics screamed that this was a recipe for fraud, expressing particular concern about language that allowed for registration with a Wisconsin driver’s license, a student ID or fee card “or any other ID judged to be acceptable by local election officials.” There were demands for monitoring of elections by the US attorney’s office in Milwaukee and the Federal Bureau of Investigation. But after a review of the 1976 election, officials confirmed that the FBI “found no evidence of fraud or voter theft.”

What was found was high turnout. In November 1976, 210,000 Wisconsinites—11 percent of the total electorate—registered at the polls. The Times reported that “in Milwaukee, for example, registration in 1974 was at the comparatively high level of 65 percent. After Wisconsin adopted Election-Day registration in 1976, registration jumped to 86 percent.” Hailing the Wisconsin accomplishment, along with more modest advances in Minnesota (which also embraced Election Day registration), the paper argued that all America should “trust democracy by enlarging it.”

President Jimmy Carter agreed. He tried to take the Wisconsin model national, with a proposal for universal Election Day registration. It never quite happened. This country continues to have a patchwork of different registration rules, some of them absurdly restrictive. And there have been efforts in a number of states, including Wisconsin, to eliminate Election Day registration and limit related reforms such as those allowing for early voting.

These are moves in the wrong direction. So wrong that they have frequently been blocked by responsible legislators and the courts. But Maine Governor Paul LePage and his allies actually did eliminate Election Day registration in that state in 2011—only to have it restored by a 60-40 popular vote in November of the same year. Former American Civil Liberties Union of Maine Director Shenna Bellows, who helped get the issue on the ballot and who now is a US Senate candidate, said at the time, “Maine voters sent a clear message: No one will be denied a right to vote.”

Voters like Election Day registration, and for good reason—Election Day registration works.

As Demos notes:

Voting rights advocates have long argued that no voter should lose their access to the ballot just because they missed a registration deadline, or because a paperwork error left them off the rolls. Any number of studies have found that turnout will get a boost if people can register on Election Day, and that argument is backed up by the (data analyzed Nonprofit VOTE, a nonpartisan group that encourages nonprofits to engage voters).

Among states that allow residents to establish or update their registration the same day they vote, turnout was 71.3 percent on average—far above the 58.8 percent for the remaining states. Five of the Same Day Registration states appear in the top 10.

This effect can’t be explained away by other factors. For example, one useful predictor of voters’ inclination to participate was the margin in the presidential race—turnout was highest in the 10 swing states where the Obama and Romney campaigns battled most intensely. But even among these 10 swing states, the three that allow Same Day Registration easily beat out the others in turnout, with Colorado the only exception.

Unfortunately, Election Day registration is not universal, as Pat Lucey, Jimmy Carter and the reformers of the 1970s hoped it would be.

According to the Brennan Center for Justice, less than a third of US states “currently offer, or have enacted laws which provide for Election Day registration, allowing eligible citizens to register or update their records on Election Day.” Several states have moved recently to create the option, including California, Maryland and Hawaii. But most Americans, especially those in Southern states with historically low turnout patterns, don’t have it.

So Congressman Keith Ellison, D-Minnesota, has proposed a Same Day Registration Act, which would amend the Help America Vote Act of 2002 to require states with a voter registration requirement to make same-day voter registration—or revision of an individual’s voter registration information—available at the polling place on the date of election itself. The Ellison proposal would also make those options available during early voting periods. The congressman says the United States can and must “ensure [that] our nation lives up to its ideals and protects the most fundamental right in our democracy.”

That was what Pat Lucey did almost four decades ago with his push for “instant voting.” History has proven Lucey and the voting advocates of the 1970s right. They recognized, as we all should, that the promise of democracy is made real when voting is easy and turnout is high.

 

By: John Nichols, The Nation, May 16, 2014

May 19, 2014 Posted by | Democracy, Voter Suppression, Voting Rights | , , , , , , | 1 Comment

“An Invitation To Oligarchy”: McCutcheon, And The Vicious Cycle Of Concentrated Wealth And Political Power

If wealth and income weren’t already so concentrated in the hands of a few, the shameful “McCutcheon” decision by the five Republican appointees to the Supreme Court wouldn’t be as dangerous. But by taking “Citizen’s United” one step further and effectively eviscerating campaign finance laws, the Court has issued an invitation to oligarchy.

Almost limitless political donations coupled with America’s dramatically widening inequality create a vicious cycle in which the wealthy buy votes that lower their taxes, give them bailouts and subsidies, and deregulate their businesses – thereby making them even wealthier and capable of buying even more votes. Corruption breeds more corruption.

That the richest four hundred Americans now have more wealth than the poorest 150 million Americans put together, the wealthiest 1 percent own over 35 percent of the nation’s private assets, and 95 percent of all the economic gains since the start of the recovery in 2009 have gone to the top 1 percent — all of this is cause for worry, and not just because it means the middle class lacks the purchasing power necessary to get the economy out of first gear.

It is also worrisome because such great concentrations of wealth so readily compound themselves through politics, rigging the game in their favor and against everyone else. “McCutcheon” merely accelerates this vicious cycle.

As Thomas Piketty shows in his monumental “Capital in the Twenty-First Century,” this was the pattern in advanced economies through much of the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries. And it is coming to be the pattern once again.

Picketty is pessimistic that much can be done to reverse it (his sweeping economic data suggest that slow growth will almost automatically concentrate great wealth in a relatively few hands). But he disregards the political upheavals and reforms that such wealth concentrations often inspire — such as America’s populist revolts of the 1890s followed by the progressive era, or the German socialist movement in the 1870s followed by Otto von Bismarck’s creation of the first welfare state.

In America of the late nineteenth century, the lackeys of robber barons literally deposited sacks of money on the desks of pliant legislators, prompting the great jurist Louis Brandeis to note that the nation had a choice: “We can have a democracy or we can have great wealth in the hands of a few,” he said. “But we cannot have both.”

Soon thereafter America made the choice. Public outrage gave birth to the nation’s first campaign finance laws, along with the first progressive income tax. The trusts were broken up and regulations imposed to bar impure food and drugs. Several states enacted America’s first labor protections, including the 40-hour workweek.

The question is when do we reach another tipping point, and what happens then?

 

By: Robert Reich, The Robert Reich Blog, April 3, 2014

April 4, 2014 Posted by | Democracy, Economic Inequality, SCOTUS | , , , , , , | 1 Comment

“Mistakes And Subterfuge?”: Rick Scott’s Campaign May Have Violated Campaign Finance Law

On Monday, Florida Democratic Party chairwoman Allison Tant filed a complaint with the Florida Elections Committee, accusing Governor Rick Scott’s (R) campaign  of committing campaign finance violations.

According to Tant’s complaint, Scott’s current campaign illegally transferred nearly $27.4 million from the governor’s former 2010 electioneering communication organization, “Let’s Get to Work,” to a new political committee with the same name.

Due in part to lax laws that allow for broad uses of campaign funds, a political committee, such as Let’s Get to Work, can legally give money directly to other political committees. However, an electioneering communications organization — which funds and engages in election-related activities through communication means, such as radio commercials and TV ads — cannot directly contribute to a political committee.

In other words: If the allegation that Scott’s campaign transferred money from a former electioneering communication organization to a political committee is true, it’s a violation of campaign finance law.

Tant now argues the campaign “violated the law,” and that “the governor is supposed to uphold the law.” If she’s right, Scott’s re-election campaign could be fined up to $82 million.

John French, the chairman of Let’s Get to Work, criticized the accusations, saying that the first incarnation of Let’s Get to Work was dismantled before a check for $24.7 million was given to the new committee, which was formed the same day the original organization was discontinued. Hence, according to French, the check received by the political committee could not have come directly from the electioneering communication organization, because it no longer existed at the time the check was written or received.

Still, Democrats maintain that the transfer of money was illegal, even if the check was written after the official close of the first version of Let’s Get to Work.

According to The Huffington Post, two Democratic state elections experts say the same.

“It’s the subterfuge that they went through to transfer the money illegally. It’s allowing them to do indirectly which they can’t do directly,” says Mark Herron, an elections lawyer.

Another expert on state campaign finance laws, Ron Meyer, agreed: “If it’s not blatantly illegal, it certainly violates the spirit of the law.”

This is not the first campaign controversy for Scott’s Let’s Get to Work: His campaign recently addressed a “mistake” that resulted in the committee failing to list a $500,000 donation it received from a private business.

 

By: Elissa Gomez, The National Memo, March 19, 2014

March 20, 2014 Posted by | Campaign Financing, Rick Scott | , , , , , | Leave a comment

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