Outside spending isn’t going anywhere
It would be nice to think that now that the 2012 election is over, super PACs will retreat from the public sphere for two—or, it might be hoped, four—years. It would be even nicer to think that, with the underperformance of Republican Party candidates, the death knell of super PACs has been rung, Karl Rove will finally crawl back to whatever swamp he emerged from and multi-billion dollar elections are a thing of the past. Unfortunately, neither is true. Barring sweeping campaign finance reform, super PACs are here to stay, and their influence will be felt in inter-election years.
Their continued existence in the electoral process is set in stone. Despite the failure of GOP-friendly super PACs in this cycle, it will always be more advantageous to utilize them than not. Should Democratic super PACs withdraw, Republican super PACs would dominate the airwaves and vice versa. As long as super PACs are legal, they will be used, and as much money will be poured into them as can be squeezed out of potential donors.
That Republican super PACs failed to oust President Barack Obama or achieve a Senate majority may also give rise to questioning not how much money was spent but how it was spent. The 2012 election was, in a sense, a trial run for super PAC spending, and one that is easily modified. Most money was spent on ads, but the ads’ effectiveness diminished with each successive round. By Election Day, with voters inundated for months, the effectiveness of an additional million dollars was questionable. Future elections could see similar, if not greater, amounts spent, but in different ways. Very few super PACs, for example, engaged in grassroots operations, but the nearly 370 million spent by Karl Rove’s Crossroads GPS would be more than enough for well-funded campaign-like operations across multiple states. Volunteers were periodically bused to locations to knock on doors, but such occurrences were far from the norm. Parallel super PAC-funded campaign offices, field organizers and volunteers are not difficult to imagine.
Additionally—and this is the biggest reason to think that bipartisan, anti-super PAC legislation might be on the horizon—they give outside, non-party groups an inordinate say over which candidates get put up for election. In Missouri, for example, Todd Akin secured the Republican nomination over the objections of party leaders in part because of outside money being funneled into the primary. The same story held in the case of Indiana’s Richard Mourdock. Both candidates lost, of course, but their examples illustrate the power now held by outside groups, and this power is unlikely to be willingly relinquished.
Their ability to interfere in the traditional party structure does not end in primaries. Now that the elections are over, many super PACs are turning to a new mission: lobbying. Unlike traditional lobbying groups, well-funded super PACs have fangs. As Barney Keller, the spokesman for Club for Growth, a super PAC that enjoyed great success in its primary meddling, stated that the group passed pro-growth policy in Congress in two ways: “One is through issue advocacy: letting members of Congress know where we stand and supporting economic freedom in Congress. And the other way we do that is by electing more pro-growth votes through our super PAC. And I think that members of Congress know that we are not afraid to replace a bad vote with a good one, if we can.”
In other words, if Republican (or Democratic, for that matter) politicians do not support the agenda of super PACs as laid out in non-election years, those super PACs will attempt to unseat them in primary and general elections. This is all the more alarming if one considers that those unseated candidates may themselves have been originally picked by super PACs over the protests of party leaders. It would probably be too alarmist to say that America is heading to a place where politicians owe fealty to groups that do not disclose where their money comes from, but it is not unreasonable to say that this is a trend that should be nipped in the bud. The existence of super PACs threatens both Democrats and Republicans, and barring legislation or legal rulings to the contrary, they’re here to stay.