By Bill Boyarsky
While the Iowa Republican caucuses might not tell us much about who will win the party’s presidential nomination, they already reveal plenty about how the new world of unlimited campaign contributions is corrupting politics.
As for the campaign itself, it will be difficult to make sense of the caucus results. The candidates echo one another on the issues, except for wild libertarian Rep. Ron Paul. The bottom line is that no matter who wins this first contest, the party’s nominee is likely to be determined by primaries down the road.
However, Iowa has become the first real test on the national stage of clout exerted by big political action committees sanctioned by the U.S. Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision, which permits unlimited fundraising and spending by corporations, unions and others. Clearly the most important development in the Iowa campaign has been the secretive political action committees that finance negative advertising, most of it done by supporters of Mitt Romney and directed against Newt Gingrich.
Citizens United opened the door for the creation of something called independent expenditure-only committees, popularly called “super PACs.” There are almost 300 of them, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, including the NFL Sports Player Super PAC, Conservatives for Truth, the Brady Bunch PAC, and Crossroads GPS, run by Karl Rove, the Republican operative and former political adviser to President George W. Bush. Many PACs will never be activated. But others will be dumping money into national and local elections for advertising so negative that candidates won’t want their names attached to the messages.
The presidential campaigns are well represented by the super PACs. Make Us Great Again backs Texas Gov. Rick Perry. Our Destiny PAC represents former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman’s campaign. Former aides of President Obama have formed Priorities USA Action. The undisputed super PAC champion is Restore Our Future, created by former aides to Mitt Romney.
In Iowa, Restore Our Future has blasted Newt Gingrich with a series of damaging attack ads financed by some of the $12.2 million the PAC has collected. In fact, Restore Our Future has spent two and a half times as much ($713,132) on advertising, most of it on television, than the Romney campaign ($285,055). The National Journal reported that the combined spending “is nearly as much as the rest of the Republican field is spending in Iowa.”
Some of the big contributors to Restore Our Future are listed in federal records, including John A. Paulson, the hedge fund manager who, The New York Times noted, made more than $15 billion for his firm by betting on the collapse of the mortgage-backed securities market in 2007 and 2008.
A more intriguing contributor was the mysterious and short-lived company called W Spann LLC, which gave more than $1 million to Restore Our Future. Michael Isikoff of NBC reported that the company was set up in Delaware on March 15, made its contribution to Restore Our Future on April 28 and then filed a “certificate of cancellation,” effectively dissolving on July 11. Filing the papers was a lawyer working for a firm whose clients include Bain Capital, the investment firm formerly headed by Romney.
There is no record of what W Spann did or of the names of its employees. The lawyer who filed the paperwork, her firm and the super PAC wouldn’t comment on the matter. While there is no record that they contributed to Spann, Bain employees have been big supporters of the Romney campaign, giving $1.25 million to Restore Our Future.
I’m not going to mourn the damage Restore Our Future’s slashing television advertisements have done to Gingrich. The former House speaker has earned the punishment. He is campaigning as a pro-Israel right-winger and reborn family man to win votes in Iowa caucuses dominated by evangelical Christians and other ultraconservatives. After Iowa, he will campaign as something else, depending on the state.
And the hypocrisy of Romney and Restore Our Future does not surprise me. Our future under Romney would be grim. He has pledged to create jobs, even after Bain’s mergers and acquisitions—under Romney’s stewardship—sent thousands to the unemployment lines. That’s the real Romney: a high-flying, anything-to-win big business guy. No doubt Bain and its employees are counting on a Romney regulatory climate much more lax than Obama’s to help them with future mergers and other unemployment-boosting operations.
What does appall me is the swiftness with which these super PACs have proliferated. And, as the Romney assault on Gingrich has shown, how effectively their money can be used to shape a state race.
The Citizens United decision was a blow to democracy, making it possible for rich stealth operations to move into the presidential race in its opening days. Expect the super PACs to get just as involved in other presidential primary races and in the general election, as well as in Senate and House races. If you don’t like it, you should join demonstrations on Jan. 21, the second anniversary of the Supreme Court decision, when Public Citizen and other groups are uniting in support of Sen. Bernie Sanders’ proposed constitutional amendment to overturn Citizens United.
NBC’s Isikoff said the super PACs provide “a vivid example of how secret campaign cash is being funneled in ever more circuitous ways into the political system.” Iowa, with the nation’s first presidential contest, likes to think of itself as a trailblazer in the nominating process. In this election, it is a trailblazer in corrupt politics.
AP / Jim Cole
Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney gestures during a campaign stop with workers at the Madison Lumber Mill in Madison, N.H., on Dec. 12.