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Context of 'April 13-20, 2012: Records Show ‘Nonprofit’ Political Organization Took in $76.8 Million in Secret Donations in 2010 and 2011'

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Three of the Supreme Court justices in the majority decision: Antonin Scalia, John Roberts, and Anthony Kennedy.Three of the Supreme Court justices in the majority decision: Antonin Scalia, John Roberts, and Anthony Kennedy. [Source: Associated Press / Politico]The Supreme Court rules 5-4 that corporate spending in political elections may not be banned by the federal government. The case is Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, No. 08-205. The Court is divided among ideological lines, with the five conservatives voting against the four moderates and liberals on the bench. The decision overrules two precedents about the First Amendment rights of corporations, and rules that corporate financial support for a party or candidate qualifies as “freedom of speech” (see March 11, 1957, January 30, 1976, May 11, 1976, April 26, 1978, January 8, 1980, November 28, 1984, December 15, 1986, June 26, 1996, June 25, 2007, and June 26, 2008). The majority rules that the government may not regulate “political speech,” while the dissenters hold that allowing corporate money to, in the New York Times’s words, “flood the political marketplace,” would corrupt the democratic process. The ramifications of the decision will be vast, say election specialists. [Legal Information Institute, 2010; CITIZENS UNITED v. FEDERAL ELECTION COMMISSION, 1/21/2010 pdf file; New York Times, 1/21/2010] In essence, the ruling overturns much of the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act of 2002, commonly known as the McCain-Feingold law (BCRA—see March 27, 2002). The ruling leaves the 1907 ban on direct corporate contributions to federal candidates and national party committees intact (see 1907). The ban on corporate and union donors coordinating their efforts directly with political parties or candidates’ campaigns remains in place; they must maintain “independence.” Any corporation spending more than $10,000 a year on electioneering efforts must publicly disclose the names of individual contributors. And the ruling retains some disclosure and disclaimer requirements, particularly for ads airing within 30 days of a primary or 60 days of a general election. The Los Angeles Times writes: “The decision is probably the most sweeping and consequential handed down under Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. And the outcome may well have an immediate impact on this year’s mid-term elections to Congress.” [Los Angeles Times, 1/21/2010; OMB Watch, 1/27/2010; Christian Science Monitor, 2/2/2010; National Public Radio, 2012]
Unregulated Money Impacts Midterm Elections - The decision’s effects will be felt first on a national level in the 2010 midterm elections, when unregulated corporate spending will funnel millions of dollars from corporate donors into Congressional and other races. President Obama calls the decision “a major victory for big oil, Wall Street banks, health insurance companies, and the other powerful interests that marshal their power every day in Washington to drown out the voices of everyday Americans.” Evan Tracey of the Campaign Media Analysis Group, which tracks political advertising, says the Court “took what had been a revolving door and took the door away altogether. There was something there that slowed the money down. Now it’s gone.” [Legal Information Institute, 2010; CITIZENS UNITED v. FEDERAL ELECTION COMMISSION, 1/21/2010 pdf file; New York Times, 1/21/2010; Los Angeles Times, 1/21/2010; Think Progress, 1/21/2010]
Broadening in Scope - According to reporter and author Jeffrey Toobin, CU lawyer Theodore Olson had originally wanted to present the case as narrowly as possible, to ensure a relatively painless victory that would not ask the Court to drastically revise campaign finance law. But according to Toobin, the conservative justices, and particularly Chief Justice Roberts, want to use the case as a means of overturning much if not all of McCain-Feingold (see May 14, 2012). In the original argument of the case in March 2009 (see March 15, 2009), Deputy Solicitor General Malcolm Stewart unwittingly changed the scope of the case in favor of a broader interpretation, and gave Roberts and the other conservative justices the opportunity they may have been seeking. [New Yorker, 5/21/2012]
Majority Opinion Grants Corporations Rights of Citizens - The majority opinion, written by Justice Anthony Kennedy, reads in part: “If the First Amendment has any force, it prohibits Congress from fining or jailing citizens, or associations of citizens, for simply engaging in political speech.… The First Amendment does not permit Congress to make these categorical distinctions based on the corporate identity of the speaker and the content of the political speech.” In essence, Kennedy’s ruling finds, corporations are citizens. The ruling overturns two precedents: 1990’s Austin v. Michigan Chamber of Commerce, which upheld restrictions on corporate spending to support or oppose political candidates (see March 27, 1990) in its entirety, and large portions of 2003’s McConnell v. Federal Election Commission (see December 10, 2003), which upheld a portion of the BCRA that restricted campaign spending by corporations and unions. Before today’s ruling, the BCRA banned the broadcast, cable, or satellite transmission of “electioneering communications” paid for by corporations or labor unions from their general funds in the 30 days before a presidential primary and in the 60 days before the general elections. The law was restricted in 2007 by a Court decision to apply only to communications “susceptible to no reasonable interpretation other than as an appeal to vote for or against a specific candidate” (see June 25, 2007).
Encroachment on Protected Free Speech - Eight of the nine justices agree that Congress can require corporations to disclose their spending and to run disclaimers with their advertisements; Justice Clarence Thomas is the only dissenter on this point. Kennedy writes, “Disclosure permits citizens and shareholders to react to the speech of corporate entities in a proper way.” Kennedy’s opinion states that if the restrictions remain in place, Congress could construe them to suppress political speech in newspapers, on television news programs, in books, and on the Internet. Kennedy writes: “When government seeks to use its full power, including the criminal law, to command where a person may get his or her information or what distrusted source he or she may not hear, it uses censorship to control thought. This is unlawful. The First Amendment confirms the freedom to think for ourselves.”
Fiery Dissent - Justice John Paul Stevens, the oldest member of the court, submits a fiery 90-page dissent that is joined by Justices Stephen Breyer, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, and Sonia Sotomayor. Kennedy is joined by Roberts and fellow Associate Justices Samuel Alito, Antonin Scalia, and Thomas, though Roberts and Alito submit a concurring opinion instead of signing on with Kennedy, Scalia, and Thomas. “The difference between selling a vote and selling access is a matter of degree, not kind,” Stevens writes in his dissent. “And selling access is not qualitatively different from giving special preference to those who spent money on one’s behalf.” Stevens writes that the Court has long recognized the First Amendment rights of corporations, but the restrictions struck down by the decision are moderate and fair. “At bottom, the Court’s opinion is thus a rejection of the common sense of the American people, who have recognized a need to prevent corporations from undermining self government since the founding, and who have fought against the distinctive corrupting potential of corporate electioneering since the days of Theodore Roosevelt. It is a strange time to repudiate that common sense. While American democracy is imperfect, few outside the majority of this Court would have thought its flaws included a dearth of corporate money in politics.” Speaking from the bench, Stevens calls the ruling “a radical change in the law… that dramatically enhances the role of corporations and unions—and the narrow interests they represent—in determining who will hold public office.… Corporations are not human beings. They can’t vote and can’t run for office,” and should be restricted under election law. “Essentially, five justices were unhappy with the limited nature of the case before us, so they changed the case to give themselves an opportunity to change the law.”
Case Originated with 2008 Political Documentary - The case originated in a 2008 documentary by the right-wing advocacy group Citizens United (CU), called Hillary: The Movie (see January 10-16, 2008). The film, a caustic attack on then-Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton (D-NY) and Democrats in general, was released for public viewing during the 2008 Democratic presidential primaries. When the Federal Election Commission (FEC) won a lawsuit against CU, based on the FEC’s contention that broadcasting the film violated McCain-Feingold, the group abandoned plans to release the film on a cable video-on-demand service and to broadcast television advertisements for it. CU appealed the ruling to the Supreme Court, and most observers believed the Court would decide the case on narrow grounds, not use the case to rewrite election law and First Amendment coverage. [Legal Information Institute, 2010; CITIZENS UNITED v. FEDERAL ELECTION COMMISSION, 1/21/2010 pdf file; New York Times, 1/21/2010; Los Angeles Times, 1/21/2010; Think Progress, 1/21/2010; Associated Press, 1/21/2010; Christian Science Monitor, 2/2/2010]
Case Brought in Order to Attack Campaign Finance Law - Critics have said that CU created the movie in order for it to fall afoul of the McCain-Feingold campaign finance law, and give the conservatives on the Court the opportunity to reverse or narrow the law. Nick Nyhart of Public Campaign, an opponent of the decision, says: “The movie was created with the idea of establishing a vehicle to chip away at the decision. It was part of a very clear strategy to undo McCain-Feingold.” CU head David Bossie confirms this contention, saying after the decision: “We have been trying to defend our First Amendment rights for many, many years. We brought the case hoping that this would happen… to defeat McCain-Feingold.” [Washington Post, 1/22/2010]

Entity Tags: US Supreme Court, Theodore (“Ted”) Olson, Sonia Sotomayor, Clarence Thomas, Anthony Kennedy, Antonin Scalia, Citizens United, Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act of 2002, Barack Obama, Samuel Alito, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen Breyer, New York Times, Nick Nyhart, Evan Tracey, David Bossie, Hillary Clinton, Jeffrey Toobin, Federal Election Commission, John Paul Stevens, Malcolm Stewart, John G. Roberts, Jr, Los Angeles Times

Timeline Tags: Civil Liberties

The Washington, DC, Circuit Court of Appeals unanimously holds that provisions of the Federal Election Campaign Act (FECA—see February 7, 1972, 1974, and May 11, 1976) violate the First Amendment in the case of a nonprofit, unincorporated organization called SpeechNow.org. SpeechNow collects contributions from individuals, but not corporations, and attempted to collect contributions in excess of what FECA allows. In late 2007, SpeechNow asked the Federal Election Commission (FEC) if its fundraising plans would require it to register as a political committee, and the FEC responded that the law would require such registration, thus placing SpeechNow under federal guidelines for operation and fundraising. In February 2008, SpeechNow challenged that ruling in court, claiming that the restrictions under FECA were unconstitutional. FECA should not restrict the amount of money individuals can donate to the organization, it argued, and thusly should not face spending requirements. It also argued that the reporting limits under FECA are unduly burdensome. The district court ruled against SpeechNow, using two Supreme Court decisions as its precedents (see January 30, 1976 and December 10, 2003), and ruled that “nominally independent” organizations such as SpeechNow are “uniquely positioned to serve as conduits for corruption both in terms of the sale of access and the circumvention of the soft money ban.” SpeechNow appealed that decision. The appeals court reverses the decision, stating that the contribution limits under FECA are unconstitutional as applied to individuals. The reporting and organizational requirements under FECA are constitutionally valid, the court rules. The appeals court uses the recent Citizens United ruling as justification for its findings on contribution limits (see January 21, 2010). [New York Times, 3/28/2010; Federal Elections Commission, 2012; Moneyocracy, 2/2012] The FEC argued that large contributions to groups that made independent expenditures could “lead to preferential access for donors and undue influence over officeholders,” but Chief Judge David Sentelle, writing for the court, retorts that such arguments “plainly have no merit after Citizens United.” Stephen M. Hoersting, who represents SpeechNow, says the ruling is a logical and welcome extension of the Citizens United ruling, stating, “The court affirmed that groups of passionate individuals, like billionaires—and corporations and unions after Citizens United—have the right to spend without limit to independently advocate for or against federal candidates.” [New York Times, 3/28/2010] Taken along with another court ruling, the SpeechNow case opens the way for the formation of so-called “super PACs,” “independent expenditure” entities that can be run by corporations or labor unions with monies directly from their treasuries, actions that have been banned for over 60 years (see 1925 and June 25, 1943). The New York Times will later define a super PAC as “a political committee whose primary purpose is to influence elections, and which can take unlimited amounts of money, outside of federal contribution limits, from rich people, unions, and corporations, pool it all together, and spend it to advocate for a candidate—as long as they are independent and not coordinated with the candidate.” Super PACs are not required by law to disclose who their donors are, how much money they have raised, and how much they spend. CNN will later write, “The high court’s decision allowed super PACs to raise unlimited sums of money from corporations, unions, associations, and individuals, then spend unlimited sums to overtly advocate for or against political candidates.” OpenSecrets, a nonpartisan organization that monitors campaign finance practices, later writes that the laws underwriting Super PACs “prevent… voters from understanding who is truly behind many political messages.” [New York Times, 3/28/2010; Federal Elections Commission, 2012; OpenSecrets (.org), 2012; CNN, 3/26/2012; New York Times, 5/22/2012]

Entity Tags: Stephen M. Hoersting, New York Times, Federal Election Commission, Federal Election Campaign Act of 1972, OpenSecrets (.org), David Sentelle, CNN, SpeechNow (.org)

Timeline Tags: Civil Liberties, 2012 Elections

The outside of the Standard & Poor’s office complex on Wall Street.The outside of the Standard & Poor’s office complex on Wall Street. [Source: Satellite Radio Playground (.com)]The US loses its top-rank AAA credit rating from the financial services company Standard & Poor’s; the firm drops the US credit rating one notch to AA-plus. The US has never had anything but top-tier credit ratings in its financial history, and has top credit ratings from S&P since 1941. S&P makes its decision based on the huge Congressional battle over raising the US’s debt ceiling, normally a routine procedural matter that was used by Congressional Republicans, who threatened to block the ceiling raise unless they were given dramatic spending cuts by the entire Congress and the White House. (House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) boasted that he and his Republican colleagues got “98 percent” of what they wanted in the debt ceiling deal—see August 1, 2011.) Because of the dispute, the US was hours away from an unprecedented credit default until legislation was finally signed and the default avoided. S&P also cites the government’s budget deficit and rising debt burden as reasons for the rating reduction, saying in a statement, “The downgrade reflects our opinion that the fiscal consolidation plan that Congress and the administration recently agreed to falls short of what, in our view, would be necessary to stabilize the government’s medium-term debt dynamics.” The drop in the US credit rating will result in a rise in US borrowing costs for American consumers, companies, and the government. US treasury bonds, once seen as the safest securities in the world, are now rated lower than bonds issued by countries such as Britain, France, Germany, and Canada. S&P says the outlook on the US’s credit rating is “negative,” implying another downgrade is possible in the next 12 to 18 months. A senior investment officer with a West Coast management company says such a downgrade was “once unthinkable,” and says the entire global economic system will be affected. After the fierce Congressional battle, President Obama signed legislation mandating $2.1 trillion in spending cuts over the next decade, but S&P officials had asked for $4 trillion in savings as a “down payment” for restoring the US’s financial stability. Part of S&P’s rationale for the downgrade is its assumption that Congressional Republicans will not allow tax cuts implemented by the Bush administration in 2001 and 2003 to expire as scheduled by the end of 2012. The Obama administration immediately notes that S&P’s made a $2 trillion error in calculating the US debt, an error that the firm acknowledges but says does not affect its decision to downgrade the US credit rating. A Treasury Department spokeswoman says, “A judgment flawed by a $2 trillion error speaks for itself.” [New York Times, 8/5/2011; Reuters, 8/6/2011] Credit rating agencies such as S&P have suffered tremendous damage to their credibility in recent years; a Congressional panel called the firms “essential cogs in the wheel of financial destruction” after what the New York Times calls “their wildly optimistic models [that] led them to give top-flight reviews to complex mortgage securities that later collapsed.” [New York Times, 8/5/2011]
S&P Explains Decision: 'Political Brinksmanship' - S&P explains its decision in a press release. The firm is “pessimistic about the capacity of Congress and the [Obama a]dministration to be able to leverage their agreement this week into a broader fiscal consolidation plan that stabilizes the government’s debt dynamics any time soon.” Fiscal policy decisions between Congress and the White House, the firm says, “will remain a contentious and fitful process.” The firm accuses Congressional Republicans in particular of “political brinksmanship” in threatening to allow a debt default if their conditions were not met, and says such tactics destabilize both the US and the global economy. “The statutory debt ceiling and the threat of default have become political bargaining chips in the debate over fiscal policy,” the firm says. “[T]he majority of Republicans in Congress continue to resist any measure that would raise revenues, a position we believe Congress reinforced by passing the” legislation. “The outlook on the long-term rating is negative.” [Standard and Poor's, 8/5/2011] In an email before the debt ceiling was raised, S&P’s global head of sovereign ratings wrote: “What’s changed is the political gridlock. Even now, it’s an open question as to whether or when Congress and the administration can agree on fiscal measures that will stabilize the upward trajectory of the US government debt burden.” [New York Times, 8/5/2011]
GOP Presidential Candidates, Congressional Members Blame Obama - The day after the downgrade, Republicans in Congress and on the campaign trail blame the Obama administration for the downgrade (see August 6-9, 2011).
Economist Lambasts S&P, Blames Congressional Republicans - Nobel Prize-winning economist Paul Krugman lambasts S&P and blames Congressional Republicans for the downgrade (see August 5-6, 2011).

Entity Tags: US Congress, US House of Representatives, Timothy Geithner, Paul Krugman, Obama administration, Barack Obama, John Boehner, New York Times, Standard & Poor’s, US Department of the Treasury

Timeline Tags: Global Economic Crises

The Washington Post reports that an anonymous donor gave the political advocacy organization Crossroads GPS $10 million to run television ads attacking President Obama and Democratic policies, part of the almost $77 million in secret donations the group has received. It also received another $10 million from an anonymous donor to use during the 2010 midterm elections. The Post says the donations are emblematic of “the money race that is defining the 2012 presidential campaign.” According to data provided by the Center for Public Integrity, $76.8 million of the money raised in 2010 and 2011—62 percent—was secretly contributed to Crossroads GPS. The money came from fewer than 100 individual donors, which works out as an average donation of over $750,000; 90 percent of its donors gave over $1 million in individual donations. Crossroads GPS is a conservative nonprofit 501(c)(4) group co-founded by former Bush administration political advisor Karl Rove. The information about the donations comes from draft tax returns that provide a limited insight into the donations received by the group. Under the law (see January 21, 2010 and March 26, 2010), Crossroads GPS is not required to identify its donors. The Post says it is possible both donations came from the same source, but it has no way to confirm that supposition.
Explanations and Criticisms - Crossroads GPS is the sister organization of American Crossroads, the super PAC also co-founded by Rove. The two groups share the same president (Steven Law), the same spokesperson, the same staffers, and the same mailing address. Together, they have raised $100 million for the 2012 election cycle and have already run millions of dollars of television ads. Crossroads GPS spokesperson Jonathan Collegio says that the organization “advocates for free markets, free trade, limited government, and personal responsibility.” The group’s donors are “individuals and businesses that support our vision of lower taxes and smaller government. We believe President Obama’s tax and regulatory policies are strangling economic growth through excessive regulation and government spending that is crowding out private investment.” Bill Allison of the Sunlight Foundation, which advocates for transparency in government and politics, says that the two groups are “certainly not a grassroots movement.… These donors can have a very disproportionate effect on politics, and the fact that we don’t know who they are and what kind of favors they will ask for is very troubling.” Allison speculates that some of the anonymous Crossroads GPS donors may be large public corporations, which according to the Post have “for the most part… not donated to super PACs or other groups that disclose donors.” American Crossroads is required to disclose its donors, which include Texas billionaire Harold Simmons ($12 million) and Texas home builder Bob Perry ($2.5 million). The Republican Jewish Coalition has identified itself on its tax returns as a donor to Crossroads GPS, having given $4 million to the organization. (Crossroads GPS donated back $250,000.) Sunlight and other critics have questioned Crossroads GPS’s status as a nonprofit “social welfare” group. Under IRS regulations, such groups cannot have as their primary purpose influencing elections, but they can spend up to half their money on political campaigning. The group has asked the IRS to grant it tax-exempt status. Critics have asked the IRS to revoke the group’s nonprofit status, saying that it is patently a political organization. A complaint filed by the Campaign Law Center and Democracy 21 in December 2011 said in part, “We are deeply concerned about the failure of the IRS to take any public steps to show that the agency is prepared to enforce the tax laws.” Crossroads GPS claims it has spent $17 million on direct election activities and $27 million on “grassroots issue advocacy,” including a $16 million expenditure in the summer of 2011 on ads pushing against tax increases during debate on raising the debt ceiling (see August 5, 2011). It has also given some $16 million to a network of conservative advocacy groups, including $4 million to Americans for Tax Reform (ATR), $3.7 million to the National Federation of Independent Business, and $2 million to the National Right to Life Committee. According to Crossroads GPS, all of its donation recipients are instructed to use the funds “only for exempt purposes and not for political expenditures.” In 2010, ATR spent $4 million—almost exactly the amount it received from Crossroads GPS—on political ads in 2010. Melanie Sloan of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW) says that even if ATR did not spend the Crossroads GPS money on ads, the donation allowed it to divert $4 million of its own money to election ads. “It’s the same amount—does that seem likely to be a coincidence to you?” she asks a reporter. An ATR spokesperson says the Crossroads GPS donation was “in support of our work fighting tax hikes.” [Washington Post, 4/13/2012; iWatch News, 4/20/2012; Think Progress, 4/20/2012]
High Compensation - Steven Law, the former deputy secretary of labor under President Bush and the former general counsel for the US Chamber of Commerce who serves as the president of both organizations, pulled down $1.1 million in salaries and bonuses for the two groups. Collegio explains the high compensation to a reporter, saying: “Crossroads is a serious organization. Free market conservative donors know that hiring top CEO talent requires real compensation.” [iWatch News, 4/20/2012]

Entity Tags: American Crossroads, National Right to Life Committee, Karl C. Rove, Barack Obama, American Crossroads GPS, Washington Post, National Federation of Independent Business, Americans for Tax Reform, Melanie Sloan, Campaign Law Center, Bill Allison, Jonathan Collegio, Steven Law, Harold Simmons, Center for Public Integrity, Democracy 21, Republican Jewish Coalition, Bobby Jack Perry

Timeline Tags: Civil Liberties, 2012 Elections

USA Today, using data provided by the Federal Election Commission (FEC), reports that much of the unprecedentedly high political contributions in the 2012 presidential campaigns comes from anonymous donors. The report also shows that eight out of the top 10 donors give to Republican and/or conservative super PACs. The pattern is similar to that described in earlier reports, such as an August 2011 report that found a dozen wealthy donors made up the majority of super PAC donations, and most of those donors contributed to Republican or conservative organizations (see August 4, 2011), and a February 2012 analysis that found a quarter of the donations flowing into the super PACs came from just five wealthy donors, four of whom are Republican contributors (see February 21, 2012). The latest data shows that eight out of 10 of the top super PAC donors are either individuals or corporations who donate to Republican causes. One of the remaining two donors, the Cooperative of American Physicians, supports a single Democratic candidate and a range of Republicans. The other is a teachers’ union, the National Education Association. The top three donors—casino billionaire Sheldon Adelson and his wife Miriam, Dallas industrialist Harold Simmons and his wife Annette, and Houston real-estate mogul Bob Perry—have between them contributed over $45 million, more than four times the donations coming from the “bottom” six donors. Much of the money collected by nonprofit political advocacy organizations remains undocumented; for example, 80 percent of the donations collected by the Republican-aligned American Crossroads super PAC and its 501(c)4 sister organization Crossroads GPS is from anonymous donors (see April 13-20, 2012). The groups plan on spending at least $300 million during the campaign. FreedomWorks for America, the super PAC arm of the “astroturf” lobbying organization FreedomWorks (see April 14, 2009), garnered about a third of its contributions from anonymous donors who gave to the organization’s nonprofit arm. Law professor and campaign finance expert Richard Hasen says, “We have a dysfunctional system for financing our elections,” when anonymous donations can fund political activity. “It’s bad for our democracy when people refuse to be held accountable.” Russ Walker, the national political director of FreedomWorks for America, says simply, “Everything we are doing is within the law.” [USA Today, 4/22/2012; Think Progress, 4/23/2012]

Entity Tags: Cooperative of American Physicians, USA Today, American Crossroads GPS, American Crossroads, Bobby Jack Perry, Russ Walker, Sheldon Adelson, National Education Association, FreedomWorks for America, FreedomWorks, Federal Election Commission, Richard L. Hasen, Miriam Adelson, Annette Simmons, Harold Simmons

Timeline Tags: Civil Liberties, 2012 Elections

A screenshot from an ad attacking Mitt Romney, sponsored by a super PAC on behalf of Newt Gingrich.A screenshot from an ad attacking Mitt Romney, sponsored by a super PAC on behalf of Newt Gingrich. [Source: Think Progress]The Wesleyan Media Project (WMP), a nonpartisan political analysis group working out of Connecticut’s Wesleyan University, finds that negative political advertising has become the mainstay of political broadcast advertising in the 2012 presidential campaign. Only about 8 percent of ads in the 2008 presidential campaign could be considered negative, the WMP writes, but in 2012, 70 percent of ads are negative. (The WMP defines negative as “mentioning an opponent.”) Erika Franklin Fowler, the WMP’s co-director, says: “One reason the campaign has been so negative is the skyrocketing involvement of interest groups, who have increased their activity by 1,100 percent over four years ago. But we cannot attribute the negativity solely to outside groups. Even the candidates’ own campaigns have taken a dramatic negative turn.” Interest-group advertising, i.e. ads financed by “independent” third-party organizations that support one candidate or another, were 75 percent positive in 2008, but only 14 percent positive in 2012. In 2008, ads financed directly by candidate campaigns were 9 percent negative, but this year are 53 percent negative.
Huge Spike in Third-Party Advertising from 2008 - Almost two-thirds of the ads aired in 2012 are paid for by “third party” organizations such as super PACs and “nonprofit” groups. Super PACs alone have financed 60 percent of the ads during this cycle; that figure for 2008 was 8 percent. The WMP writes: “An estimated $112M [million] has been spent to date on 207,000 ads compared to $190M spent on just under 300,000 ads in 2008. Much of this decline in spending and ad volume is due to the lack of a nomination contest on the Democratic side this year.” The project refers to the Republican presidential primary, which is featuring massive spending on behalf of candidates by third-party organizations. “Such levels of outside group involvement in a presidential primary campaign are unprecedented,” according to co-director Travis Ridout. “This is truly historic. To see 60 percent of all ads in the race to-date sponsored by non-candidates is eye-popping.” One of the most prominent organizations, the nonprofit Crossroads GPS (see April 13-20, 2012), has already aired some 17,000 ads, mostly attacking President Obama. Those ads are joined by commercials paid for by another conservative advocacy group, Americans for Prosperity (AFP—see Late 2004, May 29, 2009, and November 2009), which has aired some 7,000 ads. The Obama campaign and the Democratic National Committee (DNC) have combined to air some 20,342 ads. WMP data shows that 33,420 anti-Obama, pro-Republican spots have aired as opposed to 25,516 anti-Republican, pro-Obama ads.
Most Ads Paid for by Anonymous Donations - Unlike the majority of the ads that aired in the primary election, most of the ads airing for the general election have “come from groups that do not need to disclose their donors,” according to WMP co-founder Michael M. Franz. “That’s a lot of money and airtime backed by undisclosed sources.” Republican presidential candidates Newt Gingrich (R-GA), Jon Huntsman (R-UT), Mitt Romney (R-MA), and Rick Santorum (R-PA) were very reliant on super PAC advertising, with Ron Paul (R-TX) less so. About 20 percent of ads aired on Obama’s behalf have come from his super PAC, Priorities USA Action, though the DNC has aired a number of ads on behalf of Obama. Priorities USA Action is answering negative ads from Crossroads GPS with its own advertising, mainly in “battleground” states such as Iowa, North Carolina, Ohio, Colorado, Florida, Virginia, and Nevada. Ridout says: “Early general election spending reveals that both parties are focused on markets in the same key battleground states. The past couple of weeks, Obama and his super PAC have been on the air in a few more markets than Crossroads GPS, but both sides have focused their advertising in markets in Nevada, Colorado, Florida, Virginia, Iowa, and Ohio.” Groups such as the conservative Club for Growth, the American Action Network (AAN—see Mid-October 2010), and AFP are airing ads in Senate races in Florida, Indiana, and Nebraska. And some $6 million in advertising has flooded Wisconsin and its gubernatorial recall election involving Governor Scott Walker (R-WI). Walker and the super PAC supporting him, Right Direction Wisconsin PAC (an arm of the Republican Governors’ Association), have outspent their Democratic opponents; of the 17,000 ads aired in Wisconsin about the recall election, 10,000 have either been pro-Walker or negative ads attacking the recall and Walker’s challengers. Franz says: “Wisconsinites have been inundated with advertising surrounding the gubernatorial recall election. Walker and his allies hold a substantial advantage to date in the air war in all markets except Madison, and the incumbent governor’s ads have been more positive than his competitors’ ads.” The liberal news Web site Think Progress notes that the 2010 Citizens United decision is largely responsible for the increased spending by third-party groups (see January 21, 2010). [Wesleyan Media Project, 5/2/2012; Think Progress, 5/3/2012]

Entity Tags: Club for Growth, Americans for Prosperity, Travis Ridout, Wesleyan Media Project, Willard Mitt Romney, American Action Network, 2012 Obama presidential election campaign, Scott Kevin Walker, Ron Paul, Think Progress (.org), Rick Santorum, Jon Huntsman, Erika Franklin Fowler, Democratic National Committee, American Crossroads GPS, Right Direction Wisconsin PAC, Mitt Romney presidential campaign (2012), Michael M. Franz, Priorities USA Action, Newt Gingrich

Timeline Tags: Civil Liberties, 2012 Elections

Ed Whelan of the conservative National Review is highly critical of a recent article by the New Yorker’s Jeffrey Toobin about the internal decision-making process behind the 2010 Citizens United decision (see January 21, 2010 and May 14, 2012). Elements of Toobin’s narrative have already been questioned by law professors Thomas Goldstein and Jonathan Adler (see May 14, 2012), though both professors are generally supportive of the article and recommend it for reading. In his first article, Whelan writes that the evidence “doesn’t support his thesis,” and promises a followup article that addresses “some of Toobin’s wild distortions about” the decision, including what he calls Toobin’s “baseless libel” against Chief Justice John Roberts, referencing Toobin’s implication that Roberts engineered the sweeping campaign finance reform of the decision in order to aid Republican candidates. Whelan interprets Toobin’s evidence to say that it shows Justice Anthony Kennedy, not Roberts, enlarged the scope of the Citizens United decision; however, Whelan believes neither interpretation. Some of Toobin’s interpretation of events hinges on a draft dissent penned by Justice David Souter that was withdrawn after Roberts agreed to let the case be re-argued (see June 29, 2009 and September 9, 2009). Whelan implies that he doubts the existence of such a dissent, an implication that cannot be disproven, as Souter sealed his Court records after his retirement (see May 14-16, 2012). If the dissent does exist, Whelan doubts that Toobin has read it. He concludes by casting aspersions on Toobin’s assertion that Roberts engineered the results of the decision “without leaving his own fingerprints.” Roberts cast the deciding vote in the 5-4 split, Whelan notes, and adds that Roberts did not entirely escape criticism for the ruling after it was issued. [National Review, 5/15/2012]
Part Two - The next day, Whelan publishes the second part of the article, and condemns Toobin for asserting that Roberts crafted the decision with the intention of helping Republican candidates in upcoming elections. He calls the assertion “scurrilous,” and says Toobin presents “not an iota of evidence” for the claim. Whelan then writes that no evidence exists to show that the decision has helped Republican candidates more than Democrats (see November 1, 2010 and January 21, 2012), apparently ignoring two years’ worth of evidence showing that in the wake of decisions, outside funding of Republican candidates has swamped Democrats’ efforts to retain parity (see August 2, 2010, April 5, 2010, September 13-16, 2010, September 21 - November 1, 2010, October 2010, Mid-October 2010, October 18, 2010, Around October 27, 2010, October 30, 2010, Mid-November 2010, January 26, 2011 and After, March 2011, (May 4, 2011), May 5, 2011, July 12, 2011, August 4, 2011, October 27, 2011, November 8, 2011, December 1, 2011, January 6, 2012, January 23, 2012, February 6, 2012, February 9, 2012, February 21, 2012, February 21, 2012, February 21, 2012, March 9, 2012, March 26, 2012, Late March 2012, April 13-20, 2012, April 22, 2012, and May 2, 2012). He cites an article by Weekly Standard contributor Andrew Ferguson that denies the “rich and powerful” donate more to Republicans than Democrats, where the only “evidence” Ferguson cited was his assertion that “Democrats are the party of what Democrats used to call the superrich. Only Democrats seem not to realize this.” [National Review, 5/16/2012]
Final Thoughts - Whelan’s final article on the subject approvingly cites an equally negative critique of the Toobin article from Weekly Standard writer Adam White (see May 17, 2012), and insults law professor Richard Hasen’s perspective on the matter (see May 14-16, 2012); after noting that Hasen is a “[l]aw professor and election-law expert,” Whelan advises Hasen to read White’s column more closely. He also derides the idea that the Souter dissent is “secret,” noting that it would have been circulated among the other eight justices, and Justice John Paul Stevens would have had it available to him for his own published dissent. He then quotes Hasen’s critique of Stevens’s “somewhat meandering and ineffective” dissent, turns the phrasing around to insult Souter’s writing style, and says that Souter’s dissent may “reflect… too much of Souter’s draft dissent.” In attacking Hasen’s request for Souter to release the dissent, he contradicts himself by noting that the dissent is “confidential case information” that should remain out of public view. [National Review, 5/17/2012]

Entity Tags: John G. Roberts, Jr, Anthony Kennedy, Andrew Ferguson, Adam White, David Souter, Jeffrey Toobin, Richard L. Hasen, Thomas Goldstein, John Paul Stevens, Jonathan Adler, Ed Whelan

Timeline Tags: Civil Liberties

Senate races are seeing the impact of huge “independent” expenditures that resulted from the 2010 Citizens United decision (see January 21, 2010), and as in so many other instances, Republicans are reaping most of the benefits of these expenditures (see August 2, 2010, April 5, 2010, September 13-16, 2010, September 21 - November 1, 2010, October 2010, Mid-October 2010, October 18, 2010, Around October 27, 2010, October 30, 2010, Mid-November 2010, January 26, 2011 and After, March 2011, (May 4, 2011), May 5, 2011, July 12, 2011, August 4, 2011, October 27, 2011, November 8, 2011, December 1, 2011, January 6, 2012, January 23, 2012, February 6, 2012, February 9, 2012, February 21, 2012, February 21, 2012, February 21, 2012, March 9, 2012, March 26, 2012, Late March 2012, April 13-20, 2012, April 22, 2012, and May 2, 2012). Senator Sherrod Brown (D-OH) and former Governor Tim Kaine (D-VA) are being outspent by more than a 3-1 ratio by their Republican opponents and the third-party groups that support those opponents. Brown and his allies have spent some $2.5 million on television advertising, but are being challenged by an $8 million expenditure by such groups as American Crossroads and Crossroads GPS. Brown says: “These individuals, these billionaires, realize that small numbers of people can have a huge impact. It’s very one-sided. This outside money is bad for the system.” Kaine and his supporters have spent $385,000, but face a $1.9 million expenditure by such groups as the US Chamber of Commerce. Crossroads GPS is airing a series of ads accusing Kaine of having a “reckless” spending record as governor, including turning a $1 billion surplus into an almost-$4 billion shortfall, an assertion fact-checking organizations have declared to be false. In turn, Crossroads GPS spokesperson Jonathan Collegio upped the claim, telling a reporter that Kaine had left office with a $3 trillion shortfall. The Virginia Constitution requires the state to maintain a balanced budget, and factcheckers have said that Kaine balanced budgets during his term. Missouri Republicans are enjoying a $7 million-$2 million disparity in their challenge to Senator Claire McCaskill (D-MO). In Florida, US Representative Connie Mack (R-FL) and his supporters have run almost 6,500 television ads against Senate incumbent Bill Nelson (D-FL) with no response from Nelson’s campaign. One Mack ad accused Nelson of supporting a tax-funded program to research the effects of cocaine on monkeys, a claim factcheckers have found to be false. Another Mack ad attempts to link Nelson to the Obama administration’s health care reform legislation, which Republicans have dubbed “Obamacare,” and says 20 million people will lose medical coverage because of the reform, a claim factcheckers have found to be false. The re-election campaign of President Obama is hoarding resources, expecting to have to combat an onslaught of spending by Republican contender Mitt Romney (R-MA) and his supporters (see Late May 2012), and is thusly contributing little to Congressional races. Advertising executive Ken Goldstein says: “There’s so much oxygen being sucked up by the Obama campaign. Democrats are also not going to have the same kind of money that Republican outside groups are going to have.” Obama campaign manager Jim Messina confirms that the Obama campaign is not prepared to contribute large sums to Congressional contenders, saying: “Our top priority and focus is to secure the electoral votes necessary to re-elect the president. There’s no doubt that Democratic campaigns face a challenging new political landscape with special interests giving unlimited amounts to super PACs.” Scott Reed, a US Chamber of Commerce official who worked on the 1996 Bob Dole presidential campaign, says the sharp disparity in spending will not matter at the end of the campaigns: “It comes out in the wash at the end of the day in the sense that Obama is a ferocious fundraiser-in-chief. There’s no question the pro-business and pro-growth groups are spending early and more aggressively than ever because they recognize the stakes of the election are so high.” [Bloomberg News, 5/29/2012]

Entity Tags: Clarence W. (“Bill”) Nelson, US Chamber of Commerce, American Crossroads, 2012 Obama presidential election campaign, Claire McCaskill, Sherrod Brown, Tim Kaine, Obama administration, Connie Mack, Jim Messina, Scott Reed, Ken Goldstein, American Crossroads GPS, Mitt Romney presidential campaign (2012)

Timeline Tags: Civil Liberties

Black Rock Group logo.Black Rock Group logo. [Source: Black Rock Group]The 2010 Citizens United decision (see January 21, 2010) requires third-party groups working on behalf of candidates or parties not to coordinate their efforts with those candidates or parties—to remain “independent.” Many political observers have suspected that some of these groups are coordinating their efforts with the campaigns and/or with one another. Two of the groups under suspicion are American Crossroads, a super PAC, and Crossroads GPS. The two groups share the same president (Steven Law), the same spokesperson, the same staffers, and the same mailing address. Together, the two have raised $100 million for the 2012 election cycle and have already run millions of dollars of television ads (see April 13-20, 2012). In early June, Crossroads GPS spent $70,000 in advertisements attacking Democratic Senate candidate Heidi Heitkamp (D-ND), half of its $140,000 spent on that race. Shortly before that run of advertisements began, Heitkamp’s Republican challenger, Rick Berg (R-ND), paid the Black Rock Group, a Republican consulting firm in Virginia, thousands of dollars for “communications consulting.” Black Rock is also contracted to perform “advocacy and communications consulting” for American Crossroads. Black Rock’s founding partner, Carl Forti, is American Crossroads’s political director and formerly served as Crossroads GPS’s advocacy director. (Forti also helped start Restore Our Future, presidential candidate Mitt Romney’s super PAC—see June 23, 2011). Black Rock partner Michael Dubke is the founder of Crossroads Media, which buys ads for American Crossroads and Crossroads GPS. Crossroads Media and Black Rock share offices. It would be illegal for Berg’s campaign to consult or coordinate with Crossroads GPS on advertisement strategies. It would not be illegal for Berg’s campaign to consult with Black Rock, and then for Black Rock to consult with Crossroads GPS. “The real scandal is what’s legal,” says Paul Ryan of the Campaign Legal Center. The Citizens United ruling said that groups would disclose their donors and activists, and groups would not coordinate with one another. Yet both provisions are either being ignored or dodged. Fred Wertheimer of Democracy 21 says: “The statu[t]e and the Supreme Court have been very strong on preventing coordination. But the FEC regulations have basically gutted the laws and given us very weak laws to prevent coordination between outside spenders and candidates… despite the fact that the Court’s entire decision in Citizens United is based on the notion that the expenditures are going to be entirely independent from the campaign.” Bill Allison of the Sunlight Foundation says, “[T]he FEC [Federal Election Commission] has a very narrow definition of what coordination actually is.” As long as a campaign and an outside group do not directly communicate, their use of a “common vendor” such as Black Rock is perfectly legal as long as several specific criteria are avoided. “It kind of boggles the mind, but that’s what the FEC has defined and there’s nothing illegal about it.” Ryan says: “It makes the coordination rules pretty meaningless. We have all of this special interest money that we feared might be in the system, and none of the meaningful restraints on coordination, and very limited disclosure.” Allison gives a hypothetical example: “If they’re using the same people to buy ads, and the campaign is telling the ad buyer, ‘We want you to buy ads in such and such and such,’ and the ad buyer does that, the super PAC can then say, ‘Well, run ads where they’re not running ads, or double their ads,’ or whatever. These guys are professionals and they know how to do this. That’s still not coordination.” There is no evidence that Black Rock is ferrying communications between Crossroads GPS and the Berg campaign; according to Black Rock spokesperson Chelsea Wilson, “Black Rock has had firewalls in place since last year which allows the firm to legally engage in federal campaign and independent expenditure or issue advocacy campaigns.” Crossroads GPS is not legally bound to disclose much of its information to the FEC, and it is impossible to know precisely what Crossroads GPS is paying Black Rock to do for it. The Berg campaign denies any coordination, saying in a statement: “While we do work with Black Rock, there is no coordination between our campaign and outside groups and we have no knowledge of what their plans are. We cannot control what outside groups will do.” Allison says that even if Berg’s campaign is being truthful, there are many ways campaigns and outside groups can legally coordinate, using a common advisor such as Black Rock or even individual consultants. “There can be coordination at the level of consultants, even if they’re not at same company,” he says, noting that many consultants know one another socially or have worked together in previous campaigns. It is also possible, and legal, for super PACs to find out where campaigns they are supporting are buying ads by contacting the campaigns of the opposing candidates, which keep track of such information. Forti, the CEO of Black Rock, is in a unique position to facilitate what reporter Alex Seitz-Wald calls “GOP non-coordination coordination,” as he “sits in the middle of a powerful nexus of outside spending groups and GOP political firms all run out of the same office suite in Alexandria, Virginia.” Charles Spies, the treasure of Romney’s Restore Our Future, says of Forti, “I don’t know of anybody who’s got as important of a role with the major outside organizations, both in 2010 and in 2012.” [Salon, 6/19/2012]

Entity Tags: Charles R. Spies, Bill Allison, American Crossroads GPS, American Crossroads, Alex Seitz-Wald, Carl Forti, Rick Berg, Steven Law, Paul S. Ryan, Chelsea Wilson, Crossroads Media, Fred Wertheimer, Black Rock Group, Michael Dubke, Restore Our Future, Heidi Heitkamp

Timeline Tags: Civil Liberties, 2012 Elections

The First National Romney Victory Leadership Retreat, a two-day, invitation-only conference in Park City, Utah, features a number of prominent Republican lawmakers and financiers gathered to coordinate strategy for the presidential campaign of Mitt Romney (R-MA). The Washington Post describes the event as three days of “strategizing and fraternizing.” One donor and member of Romney’s national finance team told a reporter before the event that a “well organized, committed team” is expected who are “subordinating individual ego for the greater goal.” Perhaps the most controversial figure attending is Karl Rove, the former Bush administration political advisor who now helps run American Crossroads and Crossroads GPS (see April 13-20, 2012). The two groups have been heavily involved in running advertisements and other activities on behalf of the Romney campaign, but the law says the groups must conduct themselves independently of the Romney campaign. The Post reports, “Rove’s appearance could raise questions because of laws barring any coordination between super PACs and campaigns.” Common Cause’s Mary Boyle says that Rove’s appearance “seems to make a mockery of the rule that bans coordination between a super PAC and a candidate.” Tara Malloy, senior counsel for the Campaign Legal Center, agrees with Boyle, but says Rove’s participation in the event is probably legal. “[T]he coordination rule is a pretty slim reed between candidates and the super PACs that support those candidates,” she says. “It’s not by any means an airtight barrier between those two.” To break the law, Romney campaign officials would have to have a “substantial discussion” with Rove about advertising strategies. Malloy says, “The scandal in Washington is what is legal, not what’s illegal.” Other attendees include former Secretary of State James A. Baker; former Minnesota Senator Norm Coleman, the founder of the American Action Network (AAN), another influential “independent” super PAC (see Mid-October 2010); Senators Bob Corker (R-TN) and Rob Portman (R-OH), a possible vice-presidential contender for Romney; former Utah Governor Mike Leavitt (who will lead Romney’s transition team if Romney wins the presidential election); Governor Bob McDonnell (R-VA), another possible vice-presidential choice; former Governor Tim Pawlenty (R-MN), also on the vice-presidential “short list”; former Governor John Sununu (R-NH); and Weekly Standard editor William Kristol. Senator John McCain (R-AZ) speaks to the assemblage, as does former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and former Governor Jeb Bush (R-FL). Governor Bobby Jindal (R-LA), a possible vice-presidential pick, moderates a panel discussion on “Innovation in America,” joined by Hewlett Packard CEO Meg Whitman, billionaire donor Ken Langone, and two other possible vice-presidential choices, Representative Paul Ryan (R-WI) and Senator John Thune (R-SD). Rove takes part in a panel discussion called “Media Insight,” along with Romney counsel Ben Ginsberg, Kristol and his Weekly Standard colleague Fred Barnes, and GOP strategist Mary Matalin. A “Women for Romney Victory Tea” features Romney’s wife Anne and former Olympic figure skater Dorothy Hamill. Possible vice-presidential choices Senator Kelly Ayotte (R-NH), Senator Marco Rubio (R-FL), Governor Susana Martinez (R-NM), and Governor Nikki Haley (R-SC) do not attend the conference. Nor does Governor Chris Christie (R-NJ), a popular Republican who is not known to be on the vice-presidential list. Many Wall Street and private equity donors are also in attendance, welcomed by Woody Johnson, the owner of the New York Jets and the co-chair of Romney’s national finance team. One finance team member predicts the three-day event will raise as much as $700 million for Romney’s campaign. [ABC News, 6/20/2012; Washington Post, 6/20/2012; Think Progress, 6/21/2012]

Entity Tags: Bob McDonnell, Susana Martinez, Robert Jones (“Rob”) Portman, Paul Ryan, Norm Coleman, Bob Corker, Tara Malloy, Tim Pawlenty, Washington Post, Willard Mitt Romney, American Crossroads, American Crossroads GPS, Anne Romney, Woody Johnson, William Kristol, Mitt Romney presidential campaign (2012), Mike Leavitt, Nikki Haley, Ben Ginsberg, Fred Barnes, Dorothy Hamill, Condoleezza Rice, Christopher J. (“Chris”) Christie, Bobby Jindal, Meg Whitman, John Ellis (“Jeb”) Bush, James A. Baker, John Sununu, Ken Langone, Marco Rubio, Mary Boyle, Kelly Ayotte, John McCain, Mary Matalin, Karl C. Rove, John Thune

Timeline Tags: Civil Liberties

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