Last week, Ben Smith linked to a study (.pdf) by the Wesleyan Media Project on political spending in the 2010 cycle. The major findings: Republican-leaning interest groups outspent similar Democratic groups by 9:1, and hold a 3:2 advantage in overall spending. Put another way, with a 9:1 advantage in interest group spending, Republicans were only able to eke out a 3:2 advantage in total spending.
ActBlue is a major part of that story. The $80M we've sent to 3,600 Democratic candidates and committees this cycle stands in stark contrast to the "dark money" funneled through GOP outside groups. Unlike the constellation of 501c4 organizations and "Super PACs" that have helped Republicans, ActBlue is transparent. Our donations are contributions from inviduals to campaigns, not PAC donations. We report those donations to the FEC. Our numbers update in real time. In fact, while outfits like American Crossroads have flourished, GOP attempts to duplicate ActBlue's success have languished.
Those failures highlight the ridiculousness of attempts to brand Crossroads and Crossroads GPS as "Republican infrastructure." American Crossroads GPS (GPS stands for "Grassroots Policy Strategies;" you can almost hear the cynicism) is a 501c4 organization that doesn't disclose its donors. Original recipe American Crossroads is filed as (.pdf) an independent expenditure PAC. It can accept unlimited amounts of money, but can't give any to campaigns. In short, the groups themselves direct the funds, not the donors, and these groups can't help campaigns beyond the air war; that's neither "grassroots" nor "infrastructure."
Both groups owe a lot of their success to the Citizens United v. FEC decision by the Supreme Court and an opportunistic filibuster of the DISCLOSE Act by Senate Republicans. Moreover, the Crossroads model of fundraising is toxic among the electorate. As a short-term gamble to pick up seats while the RNC flounders, it may work. As a long-term strategy, it's self-defeating. After 11/2/2010, these groups will lose much of their raison d'etre, becoming a tax liability and a target for Democrats. If they continue to serve any purpose, it will be to game the GOP presidential nomination in 2011-12, which is shaping up to be an establisment v. grassroots contest. Targeted in critical early states, huge contributions from anonymous billionaires could do a lot to help a Mitt Romney-style candidate beat out a more populist foe.
In a pair of articles for the New York Times, Michael Luo delves into the role that anonymous donors are playing in the 2010 elections. Oddly, given his subject matter, he doesn't address the ways in which anonymity conditions what we are willing to say and how we say it.
Anyone who has glanced at a comment thread in the last ten years knows that anonymity and vitriol are intimately linked. Anonymous speakers are insulated from the consequences of their words, and that disconnect inevitably leads to harsher speech. Things we wouldn't say to a stranger on the street are happily tossed around in chat rooms and on forums.
That occurs because anonymity means less accountability: speech by unknown speakers can't rebound to their detriment, though it can damage both the target and the means through which that message was conveyed. That, in turn, incentivizes nastier messages conveyed through disposable conduits. In internet lingo, a flame war started by someone with an anonymous or misleading handle can damage its target, and the reputation of the forum as a whole long before it hurts the author.
These habits have their analogues in our politics. The astonishing growth and success (h/t CRP) of right-wing outside groups this cycle is about damaging Democrats through what are ultimately expendable conduits. Speaking through the ads aired by these organizations, GOP donors are able to elide not one, but two questions: who are you, and what does this ad mean if your guy wins?
Anonymity is the guarantor of security in both cases. It ensures the first question goes unanswered, and prevents the press from doing much more than guesswork when it comes to the second. When a harsh ad debuts, the donor needn't worry about reporters asking them whether they endorse the content. Any politician who benefits from the ad has enough room to distance himself from its content, during the campaign and afterward.
In short, the GOP filibuster of the DISCLOSE Act didn't just enable unlimited spending by anonymous donors. These groups–if they or their equivalents persist after election day–will slowly lead us down the path toward politics-as-flame-war.
I don't often do this, but I wanted to highlight the efforts of Progressive Kick, a group that's used a dollar-for-dollar match to raise $103K for down-ballot races. There are a couple of reasons why this is a big deal:
First, those dollars will go a lot further in smaller races. While the fundraising numbers that get national attention are measured in millions, a few thousand can make a big difference to candidates running in, say, Montana's 15th legislative district, where the delightfully-named Frosty Calf Boss Ribs won in 2008 with a warchest of $490. (She was unopposed.)
Second, In 2011 the states will redraw the boundaries of their congressional districts to account for population shifts observed in the 2010 census. In most states, the state legislature is responsible for carrying out redistricting; state legislators exercise a tremendous amount of control over what kind of candidate is electable in a given district simply by drawing its borders. Oddly-shaped districts like Trent Franks' vertical pirate ship (AZ-02) and Randy "The Neuge" Neugebauer's LEGO hook-hand (TX-19) are increasingly common these days; districts like Iowa's comfortingly regular blobs are on the wane.
In other words, control of state chambers results influences redistricting, and redistricting determines the composition of congress. The results of state races in 2010 will define the boundaries of national politics, both literally and figuratively, for a decade to come.
Tom DeLay's (R-TX) involvement in the the '02-'03 "Dancing with the Districts" scandal grew from his appreciation for the importance of redistricting and his willingness to abuse legislative arithmetic to get his way. The Republican attitude toward procedural abuse in search of political advantage has not improved since, a fact that underscores the importance of what Progressive Kick is doing on ActBlue.
Our latest installment of "ActBlue in One Take" features Sen. Al Franken. The Senator from Minnesota understands the value of grassroots donors–he raised over $2M on ActBlue in 2008, funds that were crucial to both his election day victory and drawn-out struggle against Republican attempts to keep him from taking his seat in Washington. Click on the video below to see what Sen. Franken had to say about the role of grassroots donors–and ActBlue–in 2010
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