Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell never has been shy about his majority leader aspirations, but as the GOP digs for answers on why it couldn’t reclaim the Senate, the Kentucky Republican may want to take another look at his longtime opposition to campaign finance reform.
By and large, Republican politicians and operatives think that the millions of dollars spent on their behalf by outside groups has been to their benefit and that the 2010 Citizens United Supreme Court decision rendering corporate campaign donations equal to free speech was correct. While super PACs and conservative-aligned groups may have amplified the GOP wave of 2010, they certainly had less of an impact in a non-wave election cycle where Republicans across the board may have prospered from more strategy and discipline.
By opening up the system to an onslaught of money, politicians give up one of the powers they value most: control. After all, Republicans were favored to take the majority in 2012, after boosting their numbers by six in 2010. The inability to clear the field for preferred candidates appears to have made it harder in both cycles for Republicans to win seats they otherwise might have captured, but the GOP appears to think the political dangers of restricting campaign dollars would be worse.
“Republican and Democrats don’t like to lose control over what is quote-en-quote ‘their’ campaign,” said Hunter Bates, a GOP consultant and former McConnell chief of staff who dealt with campaign finance issues. “But I don’t think Republicans would be willing to limit outside groups in exchange for gaining more control over their campaigns, because while gaining more control has some benefit, it comes with an extraordinary downside.”
Bates added, “It comes at the cost of silencing the forces that are able to level the playing field that conservatives feel is very much tilted to the left.”
McConnell has been one of the staunchest advocates against campaign finance reform, delivering a keynote address last summer to the American Enterprise Institute saying that even donor disclosure is “dangerous.”
“It is critically important for all conservatives —and indeed all Americans — to stand up and unite in defense of the freedom to organize around the causes we believe in, and against any effort that would constrain our ability to do so,” McConnell said. “Government-compelled disclosure of contributions to all grass-roots groups ... is far more dangerous than its proponents are willing to admit.”
In the months and years following Citizens United — which struck down a large chuck of the 2002 McCain-Feingold campaign finance reform law — Democrats pushed for legislation that would require disclosure for entities that are now able to give anonymously and in unlimited amounts. But one of the worst side effects of the court ruling, which most Republicans support, is that it has hamstrung formal party organizations such as the National Republican Senatorial Committee. While party organizations must still adhere to strict disclosure and coordination rules, the Supreme Court opened up nearly infinite possibilities for outside groups to grow, spend and coordinate. The result is that members such as Sen. Jim DeMint, R-S.C., — the conservative kingmaker who once said, “I’d rather have 30 Marco Rubios in the Senate than 60 Arlen Specters” — can be just as influential as leaders such as McConnell or NRSC Chairman John Cornyn of Texas.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., carries a musket on stage as he speaks during the American Conservative Union's Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) at National Harbor, Md., on Thursday March 6, 2014.