Four years ago, the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision dramatically changed campaign spending rules. The decision found that corporations and unions have the same right to engage in free political speech as individuals, unleashing unlimited amounts of money onto the political landscape.
Initially, some feared that the deluge of contributions to political campaigns would have a decisive influence on election outcomes and further bind candidates, when elected, to the special interests that helped them into office.
Access to unlimited amounts of money in just about anything is far from healthy, but has the Citizens United decision lived up to the fear hype? Yes and no.
Special-interest funding in politics — at times looking more like legal corruption — wasn’t born four years ago. However, Citizens United opened the doors to more-aggressive political activism on the part of unions and the creation of super PACS (political action committees) that have become more prominent not only in supporting candidates but also in pushing for issues that appear as constitutional amendments on state ballots. Additionally, 501(c)4 public-advocacy groups such as the National Rifle Association and the Sierra Club can also support their causes through expensive advocacy. Sometimes they win, sometimes they don’t.
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For example, Karl Rove has not been as successful helping candidates win elections with his organization, American Crossroads. Rove spent more than $400 million in the elections of 2012 without winning any races. As such, The Washington Post reports that the group’s chief executive, Stephen Law, indicates that they will likely not be involved in the presidential primary process starting in just a few months. It wasn’t just because American Crossroads used risky tactics and their candidates weren’t strong enough to win, but also because they were also greatly outspent by Democrats.
More millionaires are getting involved in super PACS, with varying degrees of success. One new player in Florida is San Francisco-based hedge fund manager Tom Steyer, whose super PAC, NexGen, is supporting Charlie Crist. The Los Angeles Times reports that Steyer has contributed $9.75 million to finance negative attack ads against Gov. Rick Scott.
A new NexGen television ad playing in the Tampa area denounces Scott for accepting $1.2 million in contributions from Duke Energy which allegedly “gouges” residents with unfair rates. This replaces a few others that have been denounced by PolitiFact as untruthful, including one that accused Scott of earning $200,000 from oil drilling and adversely affecting Floridians’ health.
Political television ads don’t get pulled very often. It was that bad.
NexGen’s Climate Action committee is Steyer’s pet project, which aims to make climate change the major political issue, although most voters seem more concerned about the threat of Ebola and ISIL. Nevertheless, NexGen has opened more than 21 offices across the Sunshine State and has hundreds of volunteers. They mean business. What NextGen activists may not know is that Steyer’s former business made him a tidy sum from the very same industries they abhor.
Farallon Capital is the hedge fund Steyer managed that soundly invested in “polluting” oil and coal projects that NexGen claims is driving global warming. Although he retired from Farallon two years ago, Steyer’s capital remained there while he was denouncing the Keystone pipeline, fracking and the use of fossil fuels.
Once it came out that he was still invested in those industries, he was attacking, he apologized and said he was moving his capital to a fund that did not invest in coal and tar sands. A hedge fund manager would have, or should have, known.
Earlier this year, Steyer appeared on C-SPAN where someone pointed out that his funding of liberal causes has the same effects for Democrats as the Koch brothers’ does for Republicans. He took issue with this claiming that he did not support those that line his pocketbook.
Obviously, Citizens United is no cure for political hypocrisy.