The Citizens United Effect: 40 percent of outside money made possible by Supreme Court ruling

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In 2002 former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld once flippantly described connections between Saddam Hussein and Al Qaeda terrorists by saying, “There are known knowns; there are things we know that we know. There are known unknowns; that is to say, there are things that we now know we don’t know. But there are also unknown unknowns; there are things we do not know we don’t know.” Little did Rumsfeld know that his remark would be the most accurate description for a murky midterm election eight years down the road.

The 2010 midterm election is filled with both “known unknowns,” outside groups raised and spent $126 million on elections without disclosing the source, and “unknown unknowns,” we don’t know what those undisclosed donors want. We do know one thing: the Supreme Court’s Citizens United ruling allowed this election to be the costliest and least transparent midterm in recent history.

The impact of Citizens United can be judged by simply following the money. The $126 million in undisclosed money represents more than a quarter of the total $450 million spent by outside groups. Add the $60 million spent by groups that were allowed to raise unlimited money, but still had to disclose, to the undisclosed money and the total amount of outside money made possible by the Citizens United ruling reaches $186 million or 40 percent of the total spent by outside groups.

The outside groups taking advantage of the Citizens United ruling are largely tilted towards the Republicans. Republican groups raising unlimited money and disclosing their donors spent $35.7 million, $11 million more than their Democratic counterparts. By a nearly six to one margin Republicans outspent the Democrats among groups that failed to disclose the source of their money ($59 million to $10 million).

Click to see the top 20 outside groups and how they fared in the 2010 elections

This heavy partisan tilt in outside spending aided the Republicans in expanding the playing field and likely helped them exceed predictions for House seat pickups.

According to a report by Politico’s Jeanne Cummings, the Republican outside groups coordinated their spending, maximizing their ability to influence the elections with a massive wave of spending. Cummings also reports that the National Republican Congressional Committee (NRCC), which was at a serious monetary disadvantage to the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC), took an unprecedented step by disclosing their ad buy strategy to the public, thus allowing the Republican outside groups to coordinate their spending with the party committee. The party committee is forbidden to coordinate with outside groups. A new loophole in federal election laws was forged when the NRCC publicly revealed their ad strategy.

Crossroads GPS, a group associated with former Bush political director Karl Rove, spent 75 percent of their money on races where the Republican candidate won. The group spent $4.4 million, the most they spent in any race, opposing Democratic candidate Alexi Giannoulias in the closely fought Illinois Senate race. Giannoulias lost the race to Mark Kirk by two percentage points. GPS does not disclose their donors and could only exist in a post-Citizens United world.

The group also spent money in tight House races where Republicans have pulled off victories or appear to have won. Democratic incumbent Jim Costa looks to be headed to a defeat in California’s 20th district. Crossroads GPS spent over $300,000 against Costa, who is trailing by less than three percentage points. The group spent another $300,000 against Texas Rep. Ciro Rodriguez, who lost by five points to his Republican challenger.

The other Republican groups, including American Crossroads, another Rove-linked organization, spent most of their money on races that Republicans won. American Crossroads spent significantly on key House races that Republicans picked up including Florida’s 22nd, New York’s 20th district and Texas’ 17th district. Republicans also seem poised to win a close victory in New York’s 25th district where American Crossroads spent over $400,000 to defeat Rep. Dan Maffei.

Click to see the top 20 outside groups and how they fared in the 2010 elections

Democratic-linked groups, including the big labor unions AFSCME, NEA and SEIU, did not fare well in the election. AFSCME, the union representing public sector workers, spent 85 percent of their money–$6.51 million–on races where the Democratic candidate lost. NEA, the National Education Association, was the most successful among Democratic groups in where it placed the majority of its money. The group spent 68 percent of its money on races where Democrats won.

Prior to the November 2nd election Congress sought to require outside groups to disclose their money by voting on a bill known as the DISCLOSE Act. The DISCLOSE Act would have required many of these groups to disclose some of their top donors to the public, reducing the trend begun by Citizens United towards less transparent elections. Already groups aligned with the Tea Party are stating their opposition to any attempt at increasing disclosure in the campaign finance system.

It is unclear whether the lame duck 111th Congress or the 112th Congress, with Republicans in charge of the House of Representatives, will move to pass a disclosure bill for this outside spending. The trend towards more “unknown unknowns” looks as though it will increase in the 2012 election and beyond.

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  • ceanf

    now pauly, you do realize that democrats out spent their republication counter parts this election to the tune of $179 million. and you are sitting here blaming the results of the election on a supreme court decision and where money came from? who cares where it came from. this election proved that money wont win a politician a race. if that were the case, the democrats, who spent more, would have fared considerably better. meg whitman, who spent some $160 million of her own money would be the republican governor of california right now if that were true. what do you have to say about this? i have a feeling your response would have just a hint of liberal elitism to it.

    so quite crying about citizens united and where money came from and went to. money didnt lose democrats these elections. their actions in office did. plain and simple. end of story.

  • John Thacker

    Not only did Democrats spend more than Republicans in the House overall (though Republicans outspent the Democrats in the Senate, where they failed to capture targets)– in two-thirds of the specific cases where Democrat incumbents lost to Republicans in the House, the Democrat candidate plus special interests outspent the Republican challenger plus special interests, according to the Washington Post.

    And of course nobody outspent loser Meg Whitman.

    Back when it was “soft money,” spending by the parties was decried, but apparently now that’s preferable to ad hoc outside groups.

    And all your implications about how bad groups are that don’t have to disclose their membership and donors is still ridiculous, since the Sunlight Foundation still (rightfully) supports NAACP v. Alabama. You’ve *never* explained how to reconcile your support of that decision with your opposition to Citizens United.

  • This election is a watershed victory for the ultra rich, for big corporations, and for the sheer power of propaganda. The explosion in false adverstising, funded by hidden billion-dollar multinational corporations and the ultra-rich, perverted the election process and made the American voter a pawn. And if you think it was bad this election, wait until 2012. That year will see $Billions spent by hidden groups to flood the media with lies and suffocate opposing views, amounting to an Orwellian takeover of the media by big money. All of this comes thanks to the Supreme Court’s Citizen United ruling, which destroyed 100 years of campaign finance rules. You MUST do this: Demand that Congress pass the Disclose Act. Demand to know who these powerful, secret donors are, so we can vote accordingly. Otherwise, our “We the People” democracy, is lost.

  • This election is a watershed victory for the ultra rich, for big corporations, and for the sheer power of propaganda. The explosion in false adverstising, funded by hidden billion-dollar multinational corporations and the ultra-rich, perverted the election process and made the American voter a pawn. And if you think it was bad this election, wait until 2012. That year will see $Billions spent by hidden groups to flood the media with lies and suffocate opposing views, amounting to an Orwellian takeover of the media by big money. All of this comes thanks to the Supreme Court’s Citizen United ruling, which destroyed 100 years of campaign finance rules. You MUST do this: Demand that Congress pass the Disclose Act. Demand to know who these powerful, secret donors are, so we can vote accordingly. Otherwise, our “We the People” democracy, is lost.

  • Nuff’Said

    Citizens United is a giant foot coming down and stomping on the Citizens of the Middle class. Good grief, has America become so stupid that it can’t see through this propaganda B.S.? To blatantly ignore over 100+ years of Constitution and rewrite it the way they see fit, then I guess America IS controlled by the greediest hogs in the land. I sure as hell don’t want a corporation I work for to be funneling money towards a polititcal group that I despise and have them saying they are reprsentative of the workers that are employed by them! THAT IS JUST WRONG!!!

    How would you feel about a company that has 10-20+ employees that work for minimum wage and need a raise to help them pay for medical expenses or whatever emergency, then the CEO of the company gets a Multimillion dollar bonus because profits were way up(or down)and the Company gives huge amount of money to the Polititcal Party that lets them get away with it and saying they are representing you-the 10-20+ Underpaid & Overworked Employees that work for them…??!!
    THAT IS JUST WRONG!!!

  • Cb

    Republicans are Nazis, plain and simple