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How Citizens United Is Affecting Campaigns

Kris Connor/Getty Images for Roadside Attractions
In Nebraska, wealthy businessman Joe Ricketts used his money to create a super PAC that supported state Sen. Deb Fischer in the GOP Senate primary. Fischer was not the frontrunner, but she managed to make a late push and won the primary earlier this month.

“It’s 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,” President Barack Obama said in a statement after the Supreme Court’s January 2010 Citizens United decision, which held that corporations have a constitutional right to free speech.

Now, more than two and a half years later, it’s clear that Obama was wrong.

The Citizens United decision (and the subsequent SpeechNow.org decision from the U.S. Court of Appeals) did dramatically alter the campaign finance system, but it did not lead Exxon Mobil, JPMorgan Chase or Pfizer to spend tens of millions of dollars to elect its preferred candidates to the House and Senate.

Instead, a growing number of wealthy individuals have used the system to their advantage, investing hundreds of thousands of dollars or more into a single race — usually a primary — to try to select a nominee in a district or state where the nomination is tantamount to election. Ultimately, this development could change the nature of one of our parties.

Ideological and issue-oriented groups have for years found ways to spend large amounts of money during elections, through 527s, 501(c)(6) spending or traditional political action committees. Super PACs have only made it easier for them to raise unlimited amounts of money and to spend it using express advocacy for the election, or defeat, of a candidate.

In very rare instances in the past, individuals have spent their own money on independent expenditure campaigns — as Michael Goland did in a 1984 effort against then-Sen. Charles Percy (R-Ill.) and in 1986 to help re-elect then-Sen. Alan Cranston (D-Calif.), and as businessman Lane Grigsby did in television ads against Louisiana Democratic Rep. Don Cazayoux in 2008.

But this cycle is different. Stephen F. Austin State University student John Ramsey has pumped more than $800,000 into a super PAC, Liberty for All, that is running more than a half-
million dollars of television ads supporting the candidacy of Thomas Massie, one of the favorites in today’s GOP primary in Kentucky’s 4th district.

Ramsey, 21, certainly doesn’t fit the profile of the wealthy corporate titan that Obama and others warned about after the Citizens United decision.

Instead, he is a libertarian who also supports Texas Rep. Ron Paul’s bid for the Republican presidential nomination and inherited his money from his late grandfather, a banker.

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