Voters Beware: PACs May Be Developing a Farm System

With the campaign season now well behind us (big sigh from the television viewing public) some reflection is worthwhile—lest we forget when the next political season overwhelms our sensibilities. After living through the most recent election cycle, it is pretty clear… this isn’t quite your grandfather’s citizen-driven democracy anymore.

Voters have increasingly become familiar with Political Action Committees (PACs), and their newer offspring Super PACs (PACS on steroids). As anyone can attest who was upright and breathing, it was pretty impossible to escape the wall-to-wall political television ads this past fall.

What most Americans probably don’t realize is that PACs actually started out as a national reform after the Watergate scandal. Before Watergate, citizens could donate whatever amount they wanted—and Richard Nixon’s Committee to Re-Elect the President (CREEP) took full advantage. But even back then, in those “wild west” early days of modern political fundraising, corporate contributions to campaigns were illegal. Not anymore.

The Washington Post broke open the Watergate scandal and the young reporting team of Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein famously coined the phrase “follow the money.” As the most recent election cycle revealed, it is getting harder all the time to follow the money.

With the Supreme Court’s Citizens United ruling allowing that corporations are protected by the First Amendment and therefore can contribute unlimited amounts to PACs, there’s a lot more money to follow. But not so fast—the Super PACs don’t have to fully disclose their funders. So much for reform.

With so much money on the table it is harder all the time for regular folks to run for office. Tim Allen, a candidate for State Senate for whom we worked this past fall, certainly learned that in the 2014 Democratic Primary. The margin between his second-place finish and the winner was only a couple of hundred votes, but Allen was outspent by the winner in the race by more than $200,000.

The next thing to track will be the flow of PAC money into state elections on the local level—think of it as PACs using their financial muscle to build a farm system. Candidates elected to State Representative or State Senator with the help of PAC money are likely to stay aligned as they naturally percolate up through the system to congress or other higher offices.

The Massachusetts Fiscal Alliance is one such organization working at the grassroots level that emerged in the most recent election. The group calls itself a non-partisan organization that is “advocating for fiscal responsibility,” which is certainly a noble and popular goal. However, MFA targeted only Democrats—20 in the Massachusetts House—with multiple mailings attacking their positions on everything from veterans’ services to immigration.

We worked with one of those candidates targeted by MFA, Representative Angelo Puppolo, in defending his record and going on the airwaves to present a positive message to combat the negative mailings. We are likely to see a lot more PAC money seeping into local races such as this one.

But, if you look close enough there is a glimmer of hope on the horizon.

Voters polled on the influence of PAC money on campaigns are consistently saying they want reform. The Massachusetts Legislature is listening—in the last legislative session they passed a Super PAC disclosure bill requiring additional disclosure about the people behind the contributions to Super PACs and more real-time disclosure, bringing new transparency. An editorial in The Republican/MassLive even called this legislation “maybe the most important piece of legislation in the 188th session.”

So, with so much division in our political system, isn’t it fair to say we are getting the system that is being paid for? Let’s hope the reforms continue and we start to get the democracy we deserve… but I’m not holding my breath.

Photograph of Paul Robbins
Paul Robbins

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