Republican challenger Chris Collins defeated Democratic incumbent Kathy Hocul Tuesday night. But the real loser in the 27th Congressional District is us.
Roughly $5 million was spent on TV advertising by both candidates or their supporters, split about evenly. It was money that could have funded a wing for the coming Children’s Hospital or bought a Kindle for every Buffalo school kid. It was a mountain of money that had barely a molehill of impact – polling put the race as dead even last week, as it was months ago. Worst of all, most of the millions spent was “outside money” – money that sideswiped democracy by diminishing the voice of average folks in favor of the megarich and the powerful.
Welcome to government by Super PAC. The massive, often-anonymous, donor dumps usually fund attack ads – like the ones that mud-caked the Hochul-Collins race – that deepen the partisan divide and leave compromise bleeding in the aisle.
The U.S. Supreme Court’s infamous Citizens United decision in 2010 loosened campaign finance laws and unleashed the political might of multimillionaires, corporations, unions and the like. By comparing the limiting of corporate contributions to the gagging of free speech, the court assaulted logic and made democracy more of a pay-to-play proposition. The decision was so mind-boggling, I wondered whether recreational marijuana use had been approved for Supreme Court justices.
“The question is how much more influence these [big donors] have than an ordinary person in decisions made by politicians,” said Kathy Kiely of the Sunlight Foundation, which promotes government openness.
We know the answer: A lot. Worse, we sometimes don’t even know who is making the megadonations.
The Hochul-Collins race is a case in point. It was a war of attrition replete with misleading claims and near-outright lies. Much of it, on both sides, was bankrolled by outside interests who – thanks to Citizens United – are often impossible to trace.
Talk about a “shadow government.” I’m surprised that the Liberty Bell hasn’t popped another crack.
Republican Collins’ big-money funders included the Orwellian-sounding American Action Network, which dumped $308,000 into the race. It is a one of a host of nonprofit “shell” groups unleashed by the Citizens United ruling that does not identify donors. So we will not know, if Collins wins, precisely who might be pulling his strings in Washington.
The biggest chunk of Hochul’s outside dollars came from the Democrats’ House Majority PAC. The Super PAC, which was funded largely by unions but which also included anonymous donors, ponied up $670,000. The “outside” dollars drive a deeper wedge into the blue/red divide afflicting America – and make it even tougher to reach the cross-aisle compromises we need. More than three-quarters of the “outside” ads are negative, demonizing the opponent and fueling partisan fires. Hochul’s Washington-funded attack ad that claimed Collins axed 115 workers at Buffalo China didn’t pass a Buffalo News-vetted smell test. Similarly, a Republican Super PAC television ad saying Hochul voted to slash $716 million from Medicare distorted reality.
“The [outside dollars] allow candidates to outsource the slime,” Kiely noted.The new era of Super PACs is a national story, afflicting and affecting House and Senate contests and the presidential race. We got a close look in the Hochul-Collins battle, and it wasn’t pretty. Which again raises the question: What were the Supreme Court justices smoking?