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.
In both 2010 and 2012, more conservative candidates emerged from primaries. Though that has resulted in some successes for Republicans, such as in the case of Rubio in 2010 and Nebraska Sen.-elect Deb Fischer on Nov. 6, it has also led to some spectacular failures in the general election.
In 2010, the NRSC tried to pick its candidates in the primaries only to have a tea party electorate reject them in favor of candidates that were perceived as more conservative. In 2012, the NRSC largely sat on the sidelines in the primaries, leading to primary winners such as Rep. Todd Akin in Missouri and Richard Mourdock in Indiana, who went on to lose seats that were otherwise considered prime GOP pickup opportunities. This year, every Senate Democratic incumbent kept his or her seat, and Democrats were able to put Republicans on defense in states such as Arizona, where the GOP has traditionally held an advantage.
In September, Roll Call first reported that Cornyn thinks the Senate should look into reform next Congress.
“I think it would be a worthwhile exercise ... next year, to look at our campaign finance system in light of the Supreme Court decisions and say, ‘What makes sense in terms of accountability and with concerns to transparency?’ That I think would be important,” Cornyn told Roll Call then.
And there has always been a small group of Republicans who opposed the Citizens United case and unlimited spending, such as Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz. The namesake of the 2002 law told Roll Call in September that “the flood of money, because of the Citizens United case, has destroyed the whole political system as we know it. So I think we have got to go back.”
The 2008 GOP presidential nominee added that there would need to be “scandals and then there will be reform.”
It’s unclear whether failure to recapture the Senate repeatedly will be scandal enough for Republican leaders to consider amending what was once a sacrosanct position.
Moreover, not all Republicans see a correlation between outside groups and un-electable conservative candidates.
“I don’t think outside group spending is the reason why Republicans have nominated a few duds in recent years — and it’s really been a few duds. They’ve been high-profile duds,” said Brad Smith, chairman and co-founder of the Center for Competitive Politics, which supports a rollback of campaign finance restrictions. “I don’t think that’s been a problem with outside groups, that’s a problem with a primary electorate.”
He added, “Republicans would be foolish to think about how they should be regulating these [outside groups] because they rely more on paid media than Democrats do.”
Democrats could consider reintroducing campaign finance reform legislation next Congress. Sen. Charles E. Schumer of New York, one of the co-sponsors of the original DISCLOSE Act, said it was on a list of initiatives leadership would like to take up.
And the party sees Republicans electoral failings this cycle as an interesting starting point for renewing their push.
“I think that [McConnell] celebrated the Citizens United decision prematurely, and he liked the idea of deregulating campaign finance but perhaps the implications of the ruling didn’t become clear to him until this cycle played out,” a senior Democratic aide said. “I think Mitch McConnell is only now realizing that he needed to be careful what he wished for because this ruling has unleashed forces that have hurt his party’s attempt to take back the Senate, twice now.”
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