WASHINGTON, D.C. — Big campaign money just got even bigger.
Thanks to Wednesday’s U.S. Supreme Court decision overturning laws on certain donor restrictions, legions of American voters, already angry at a distant, dysfunctional political system, might feel even further alienated from the process. Or they’ll have new opportunities to make it better.
In other words, there’ll be an impact from the ruling that lifted limits on how much donors can give in a single election cycle. Whether you like or hate the fallout depends on where you sit politically.
“This is a terrific decision. It reinforces First Amendment values,” said Hans von Spakovsky, senior legal fellow at the conservative Heritage Foundation and a former Federal Election Commission member.
“This decision may be more good news for American oligarchs, but it is bad news for voters,” said Senate Majority Whip Richard Durbin, D-Ill.
The practical effect on campaigns themselves might be minimal, as veterans of campaign wars noted that money is not an automatic guarantee of success.
Money’s influence on campaigns is often most pronounced in two ways: It allows well-known politicians, usually incumbents, to build up big war chests, thus scaring off many who are intimidated by the sums, and it permits wealthy candidates or those with substantial donor networks to gain a decisive edge over citizens without such advantages.
That’s why, for instance, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush is being mentioned these days as a viable 2016 presidential candidate, even though he last ran for office 12 years ago; that, and the political credibility that having a family presidential lineage confers.
But there’s evidence that those who pour millions into campaigns don’t succeed.
“What this decision means is a lot of crazy people are going to spend a lot of money and have no impact,” said Peter Kelly, a former Democratic National Committee finance chairman and treasurer. “These are often highly motivated people with extreme positions.”
In 2012, for instance, Las Vegas casino magnate Sheldon Adelson spent an estimated $15 million to boost the unsuccessful candidacy of Republican presidential hopeful Newt Gingrich.
And for all the claims that big money matters, control of the House of Representatives has changed parties only three times in the past 20 years, after staying under Democratic rule for the previous 40.
Sometimes deep pockets do bring results. The billionaire Koch brothers are in the midst of a five-year campaign criticizing the Affordable Care Act. Their recent efforts have focused on seven states where Democratic-held Senate seats are up for re-election this year.
Republicans are thought to have a decent chance of winning all seven seats, though whether the Koch campaign will be a major factor is a matter of debate. What might determine the ultimate impact of Wednesday’s decision is how voters come to view the political process: Will they participate less? Will they vote?
People think money has a corrupting influence, said Sal Russo, a veteran California political strategist who’s a co-founder of the Tea Party Express, the group that in recent years has marshaled grass-roots support and become a political force. It’s hardly new, he said, that monied interests are trying to influence politics.
“My belief has been money finds its way into politics one way or the other,” he said, adding that the key to keeping voters engaged is more and easier transparency of the donations.
Some political observers were convinced that Wednesday’s ruling will encourage participation. The conservative Club for Growth PAC collects donations and funnels them to candidates. In the last election cycle it backed 25 candidates, but many donors were unable to give to that many because of the restrictions.
Not anymore, and that means more involvement by average citizens, said club spokesman Barney Keller. The system has been tilted to favor incumbents, who don’t need advertising to develop name recognition.
Others lamented that ordinary citizens already often see the process as a pay-to-play proposition where they lack the resources to get in the game. The court ruling kicks open more floodgates “for the nation’s wealthiest few to drown out the voices of the rest of us,” said Miles Rapoport, the president of Common Cause, a nonprofit liberal advocacy group for government accountability.
Big money plays a role in stoking that skepticism. Four of five people Gallup surveyed last year would vote for a law putting a limit on the amount of money that candidates for the House and Senate could raise and spend on their campaigns. Half favored a federally funded system that bars individual contributions.
Wednesday’s court ruling probably will reinforce the notion that those without fat bank accounts will find their voices fading even further. Or, alternatively, joining with like-minded people to have even more clout.
“If you’re a little guy, you spend your money with others, “said von Spakovsky.
But Sen. Martin Heinrich, D-N.M., said a bigger issue was at stake.
The decision, he said, will “erode the integrity of our political process and the public’s faith in our leaders to do what’s right for the American people.”