Opinion, WVPA Sharing

Herald-Dispatch: Evolving campaign strategies reduce transparency

HUNTINGTON, W.Va. — From the editorial page of the Herald-Dispatch:

Knowing the high-stakes nature of politics, it’s not surprising that election campaign organizations try to push the limits to gain every advantage. Now, we’re learning about some new strategies that could extend the boundaries even further, paving the way for big money to have even greater influence on elections.

The basis for this still-developing trend was the U.S. Supreme Court decision in 2010 in the case of Citizens United v. the Federal Election Commission. The court ruled that political spending is protected under the First Amendment guarantee of free speech, and that it applied to corporations and unions. That meant that corporations and unions could spend unlimited amounts of money on political activities if done independently of a political party or candidate. Still in place is a cap of $5,200 on contributions to a candidate’s or political party’s campaign fund during primary and general elections. However, a donor also can give unlimited amounts to super political action committees and “social welfare” organizations aligned with a particular candidate or party.

The decision fueled increased spending by such “independent” groups in 2012 and 2014, and potential political candidates are considering exploiting the current spending landscape in new ways.

The Associated Press reported last week how expected Republican presidential candidate Jeb Bush, the former Florida governor, is considering the idea of shifting many of a campaign’s traditional core functions to a super PAC. According to AP’s sources, the strategy could put Bush’s Right to Rise super PAC in charge of the biggest expense involved in a campaign, television advertising and direct mail. Also being considered is turning over other functions, including gathering data, individualized online advertising, running phone banks and get-out-the-vote operations.

The result would be that much of Bush’s campaign apparatus would be handled by an organization that can raise unlimited amounts of money rather than by his own campaign organization. Another potential presidential candidate, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, is also reported to be considering a similar approach.

Of course the requirement that super PACs run independently of a candidate’s campaign is supposed to lessen the impact that these organizations can have. But who is policing that? The Federal Election Commission is viewed as passive in such matters. Many observers believe that coordination still occurs behind the scenes. In fact, until he declares his candidacy, Bush can work closely with and strategize with his affiliated super PAC. It’s also believed that one of his top political advisers will become head of the super PAC that will advocate for Bush, according to the AP report.

Another concern is that allowing corporations, unions and other organizations to donate unlimited amounts of money to super PACs hides many of the big contributors, leading to all the “dark money” bankrolling much of the negative advertising we’ve seen in recent elections. Many individuals can funnel their money into super PACs indirectly through corporations and unions, and social welfare groups can spend unlimited amounts without revealing their contributors.

Under these circumstances, groups and contributors can parlay their political speech into the loudest voices when it comes to trying to influence elections, but in many cases the public will be left in the dark about out who’s doing the talking.

All in all, it’s not a forthright system of advocacy.

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