Blaming Citizens United for Everything
UPDATED:I made a significant mistake in the original version of this post, which has now been corrected as noted below. I do not believe the correction affects the point of the post, though.
Over at one of my longtime favorite liberal blogs, Ron Beasley (also here) points to this news report about the not-really-close election in Oregon’s 4th District, represented by unabashedly liberal and Democrat Peter DeFazio. DeFazio, it appears, is not winning by as much as he’s used to winning by:
Polling for the contest is thin, with a Republican-backed survey from early October showing that Robinson had closed to within 6 points. A second poll released Oct. 11 from a Democratic polling firm showed DeFazio with a 14-point advantage. Independent election analysts are predicting a DeFazio victory though nowhere near the 82 percent of the vote he earned in 2008 against a pair of minor party challengers.
The culprit, according to the article (and to which Beasley unfortunately offers assent):
He’s in a competitive race with a novice opponent who’s been assisted by a torrent of attack ads financed largely by a wealthy New Yorker.
The ads, from a group called Concerned Taxpayers for America, have been blistering DeFazio for weeks. They are a direct result of a January decision by the Supreme Court that allowed third parties to make unlimited – and at times anonymous –political contributions. It’s turned the race for the 4th District from the usual low key, predictable affair in which DeFazio cruises to victory to a loud, angry and vastly more expensive enterprise in which little known Republican Art Robinson has shown surprising strength.
This is complete hogwash.
For starters, the claim that the independent expenditures “turned the race . . . from the usual low key, predictable affair . . . to a loud, angry, and vastly more expensive enterprise,” ignores that the supposed $300,000 spent by Concerned Taxpayers (the Sunlight Foundation puts it at closer to $250,000) is only about 10% of the total money that will be spent directly by the campaigns on the race. That is hardly turning the race into a “loud, angry, and vastly more expensive enterprise.”
More importantly, though, the notion that this particular campaign is a direct result of Citizens United is demonstrably false. Even a cursory look at the link in the article to the Concerned Taxpayers disclosure form quickly reveals that these are independent expenditures of a PAC which is funded entirely by two individuals (well, technically, it appears that one of those two individuals has incorporated his name, but that incorporation looks to be purely cosmetic since the article acknowledges the money is coming entirely from his personal finances). The relevant portions of Citizens United, of course, dealt only with contributions by corporations, unions, etc. and had nothing whatsoever to do with independent expenditures by PACs or individuals.
Moreover, this can’t even be blamed on other post McCain-Feingold decisions such as FEC v. Wisconsin Right to Life, as there have been no limits on independent expenditures from individuals and PACs since Buckley v. Valeo in 1976. Indeed, electioneering PACs like this have been around for decades, although it is perhaps unusual that this particular PAC is funded almost entirely by only two individuals. [CORRECTION: The post-Citizens United decision in the DC Circuit, Speechnow v. FEC, struck down contribution limits to PACs like these. My failure to acknowledge this is an inexcusable brain fart. However, nothing in prior law would have prohibited these two individuals from making an independent expenditure on their own, so that in this case they have instead done so under the umbrella of an organization in which their membership is disclosed is of marginal relevance, at best].
Additionally, the suggestion that the “closeness” of DeFazio’s race is solely due to the independent expenditures is completely baseless and smacks of excuse-making. That the article above compares DeFazio’s current poll numbers only to 2008, when he had no major party opponent, is absurd – I struggle to think of many, if any, races where an incumbent (much less one who is a reliable party vote) with no major party opposition has done worse than 82%. The proper comparison is thus to races where DeFazio had a major party opponent. Looking at those races, you quickly determine that DeFazio normally wins with 60-65% of the vote, not significantly more than the 14 point spread in the Dem poll, particularly considering as this is the worst year to be a Dem incumbent since 1994. Moreover, while DeFazio hasn’t faced a remotely close election since 1986, it’s probably worth knowing that his district only went to Obama by 11 points in 2008, split evenly between Kerry and Bush in 2004, and actually went to Bush by 5 points in 2000.
In a year this bad for Dems it shouldn’t be surprising that an unabashed liberal Dem in a fairly evenly divided district would be underperforming his typical results by 10 points or so, and to ignore that fact is to simply shift attention from the sorry state of our economy and put the spotlight on a convenient scapegoat.
Indeed, look at someone like New Jersey Democrat Rush Holt, who has won every post-2000 census election with numbers in the same 60-65% range as DeFazio. Like DeFazio, Holt is an unabashed liberal. Unlike DeFazio, he also holds a critical seat on the House Intelligence Committee, from which he is perhaps the single most important advocate of civil liberties in Congress. And unlike DeFazio, Holt’s district is a reliable Dem district in Presidential elections.
Despite this, the last poll I saw on Holt has him up only 5 points over a relative unknown. Holt’s opponent has had the benefit of only $150,000 in third-party expenditures, about half the support that DeFazio’s opponent has had, despite Holt being in the vastly more expensive New York media market (I actually haven’t seen or heard a single one of the Chamber of Commerce’s anti-Holt ads despite residing a 10 minute drive from Holt’s district). Meanwhile, Holt’s campaign has raised well in excess of $2,000,000, or about 15 times the independent expenditures against him and $700,000 more than his opponent.
So, while it may be unfortunate that Holt’s race is significantly closer than in previous years, there’s simply no way that one could pin the blame for that fact on independent expenditures or on the increase in spending by the Chamber of Commerce post-Citizens United. To blame independent expenditures, much less the entirely-irrelevant Citizens United, for an equivalent underperformance by an equally liberal Congressman in a less-Democratic district is thus absurd and simply smacks of grandstanding and scapegoating.
Opponents of the decision will need to look much harder than this for evidence that Citizens United is having a demonstrable effect on the electorate’s decisionmaking.