Chron: Scary "new" trend of big money in politics hits Houston!
In today's Chronicle, Bradley Olson reports on what he calls "a new national trend in politics in which corporations and the wealthy can spend big in election season under the cloak of anonymity."
The story cites two local nonprofit organizations, King Street Patriots/True the Vote and Renew Houston, as manifestations of this "new" trend that various campaign-finance-reform advocates and others who decry the influence of money in politics find scary. The story goes on to insinuate (via these same advocates) that the problem was made worse by the Roberts Court's Citizens United decision on campaign finance.
Now, we certainly wouldn't want to dissuade any Chron journalists from digging into campaign finance records and looking for conflicts of interest. Goodness knows, that would be a welcome change from the sorts of rah-rah stories that too frequently show up in the newspaper.
But "new national trend?"
Since the McCain-Feingold "reforms" that were going to check the influence of big money in politics (right), we instead have seen the rise of 527s (remember the Bush-Kerry race?) not to mention the sorts of independent organizations cited by Olson in today's piece. There's nothing that "new" about it, unless you've haven't been following politics for the last six years.
Indeed, in recent blog posts, we've referred to the Colorado Model, in which a handful of committed millionaire progressives managed to flip formerly reliably Republican Colorado to the Dems over a few election cycles, through strategic funding of down-ballot political races, creation of a loose network of "independent" news organizations and "ethics" groups to pound targeted opponents, and liberal use (no pun intended) of the legal system to tie up ostensibly conservative organizations. Here's a deep excerpt from the definitive account of the successful effort:
The group immediately recognized that campaign finance reform had completely changed the rules of the game. By limiting the amount of money candidates and political parties could raise and spend, the new law had seriously weakened candidates—and all but killed political parties.
“In the past, the party ran this whole apparatus, they called it the ‘coordinated campaign,’” said Polis. “The party chairs were largely responsible for the fund-raising. The candidates helped raise money for the parties. It all went into one pot.” After campaign finance reform, that pot shrunk to the size of a tea-cup. Polis knew that campaign finance reform “basically guaranteed that the party itself, Republican or Democrat, could not possibly be the main entity that…ran campaigns. The biggest thing is it took parties out of the mix as a money entity.”
The vacuum left by the diminishment of the Colorado Democratic Party also created a tremendous opportunity for the Roundtable.
The people at the Roundtable recognized that they, for all intents and purposes, were the party.
With campaign finance reform, the Gang of Four couldn’t give much money directly to candidates, so they looked to other avenues. And the most obvious were 527s. Named after the section of federal tax law under which they are regulated, 527s were not new, but until campaign finance reform laws were passed in 2002, they rarely played a significant role in elections, especially at the state level. The Roundtable changed that.
In hindsight, it’s remarkable how quickly members of the Roundtable adapted to the new campaign finance reality. While national political groups were beginning to use 527s (the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth is a famous example from the same time frame), in 2004 it was unusual for state-based organizations to understand these exotic organizations and complex rules that governed them—much less master them to the point that they could be used effectively. The Roundtable capitalized on a key provision of post-campaign finance reform election law, namely, that while nonprofits were no longer allowed to coordinate their activities with candidates or political parties, they were perfectly free to coordinate among themselves.
And coordinate they did. (Adam Schrager and Rob Witwer, The Blueprint: How the Democrats Won Colorado)
2004. Not "new."
As we've noted previously, there has been a concerted effort since 2005 to bring the Colorado Model to Texas, with implications for Harris County this election cycle. This may be news to the Houston Chronicle, but it's not "new."
Now, as to what it suggests in terms of the futility of various campaign-finance-reform efforts... we'll let folks have at that one in the comments.