By Eric Boehm | Watchdog.org
MINNEAPOLIS — The loosening of federal rules for political spending has done more to help Democrats than Republicans, according to two recent analyses of campaign contributions.
Those facts run counter to a well-established national media narrative — one often repeated by liberal groups and Democratic lawmakers who bemoan the influence of corporate cash in politics after the Supreme Court’s ruling in 2010 opened the flood gates to unlimited political spending — that says Republicans and their big business allies have been able to unduly influence elections with unfettered spending.
The collection of Supreme Court rulings known as Citizens United opened the door to the creation of so-called “super PACs” with no spending limits. While high-profile conservatives like the Koch Brothers and Sheldon Adelson have been at the center of attention over their political spending, their pockets are hardly the deepest.
The rulings also allowed unions — recognized under federal election law as being the same as corporations — to form their own super PACs. Liberal billionaires like Michael Bloomberg have done the same.
Both sides play the game, but which has benefited the most from unfettered political spending?
When all the numbers were added up, it wasn’t even close in 2013.
An analysis by the Sunlight Foundation, a nonprofit that tracks political spending, of groups and individuals who wrote checks of more than $10,000 to super PACs and other political committees found big labor outspent big business by a margin of more than 2-to-1 during 2013.
“When it comes to writing big checks to favored candidates and causes, unions last year seemed to be taking greater advantage of the landmark Citizens United decision than corporations,” said Jacob Fenton, an editorial engineer for the Sunlight Foundation.
Fenton said the group’s study focused only on the big checks because they wanted to capture the types of spending that would have been illegal before Citizens United.
Before the ruling, unions, corporations and individuals had to limit contributions to a maximum of $1,000 apiece and couldn’t draw directly from their bank accounts, but had to go through political committees that reported all contributions and expenditures.
During 2013, more than $108 million was raised by super PACs. Most of it, more than $55 million, came from individual donors. Unions contributed $19 million and only $7 million came from corporations, the Sunlight Foundation reported.
That unions favor Democrats is hardly a surprise, and even though the majority of corporations gave to Republicans, the Sunlight Foundation analysis found the largest single corporate donor was the Mostyn Law Firm, which gave more than $1.1 million to liberal super PACs.
The two largest individual donors during 2013 — billionaire banker Tom Steyer ($11.1 million) and Bloomberg, the former mayor of New York City ($8.7 million) — both gave mostly to Democrats, too.
If political giving by unions, corporations and individuals during 2013 were Olympic sports, liberals would win the gold medal in all three categories.
Even so, progressive groups continue to blast outside spending as a bad thing for their cause.
“Extraordinarily wealthy corporations and individuals now have more potential power over who wins elections than at almost any time in a century, since dating back to the era of the ‘robber barons,’” warned Lisa Graves and Brendan Fischer of the Center for Media and Democracy, a Wisconsin-based progressive group, in written testimony to Congress encouraging lawmakers to overturn Citizens United.
Despite the outrage, it seems 2013 was the year that wealthy liberal donors discovered something that many unions already knew about the power of money in politics. After all, the AFL-CIO actually argued in favor of lifting donation limits when the Supreme Court was considering the Citizens United cases.
That might come as something of a surprise, because the union — like many of its breatheren — has publicly spoken against Citizens United and even called for Congress to overrule the Supreme Court on the issue.
“The Citizens United ruling has opened the floodgates to massive spending by corporations and even more so by wealthy donors,” the union said in 2012 as part of an official policy statement calling for the case to be overturned. “They are pouring money into our electoral system and threaten to drown out the voices of hard-working Americans.”
But once again, the facts don’t fit the narrative.
The Sunshine Foundation data bears out why unions and corporations could agree on ended donation limits — both are happy to spend more money on getting favored candidates elected.
There are reasons to think 2013 was an outlier.
Perhaps conservatives were looking to save their money for a big push in 2014 — or recovering after spending millions to help Mitt Romney’s losing effort in 2012 — while liberal groups and individuals were spending to push state-level agendas like the minimum wage increase in New Jersey or the election of Democratic Gov. Terry McAuliffe in Virginia.
Bloomberg’s super PAC is a good example.
He spent nearly $3 million supporting McAuliffe in the Virginia gubernatorial race, another $1 million backing Cory Booker’s win in the U.S. Senate special election in New Jersey and millions more pushing gun control policies in Illinois and Colorado that largely failed to materialize.
Over the long term, the narrative of Republicans using big business cash to buy elections doesn’t stack up either.
Open Secrets, another group that tracks campaign spending by outside groups, on Friday released figures dating back to 1989 showing political spending by groups on both sides of the political spectrum. The numbers included not only total spending, but the percentage that was given to Democratic or Republican candidates.
Peppered across the top of the list are not the deep pocketed corporations of progressive nightmares, but liberal groups like Act Blue, which topped the list with more than $100 million in contributions since its founding in 2004.
Six of the top 10 political spenders over the last 25 years are unions, including American Federation of State, County and Municipal Emloyees ($60 million) and the National Education Association ($53 million), the nation’s largest teachers’ union.
The Koch brothers, by comparison, ranked 59th on Open Secrets’ list. The brothers have spent $18 million since 1989, less than 20 percent of what Act Blue has spent since 2004.
What was that the AFL-CIO said about Citizens United silencing voices?
Boehm is a reporter for Watchdog.org and can be reached at [email protected] Follow @WatchdogOrg on Twitter for more.