AP/Thanassis Stavrakis

“Friend, I don’t know where else to turn.”

At first I thought it was an email from some crook claiming to be stuck penniless in a faraway airport. But the sender turned out to be Cory Gardner, a Republican trying to beat Democratic Sen. Mark Udall in Colorado, and he was asking for a campaign contribution.

It was more evidence of how money is the most powerful political force in the current election. So are the emails I receive daily from my dear friends Harry Reid, Bill Clinton and of course the Obamas, all of them addressed to “Bill,” all urging me to contribute to the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee.

The Center for Responsive Politics OpenSecrets website reported Oct. 22 that almost $4 billion will be spent on the current election, making it “by far the most expensive midterm ever.”

If you wonder what this election, with its expected low turnout, is really about, just think of it as nothing more than a huge fund drive for both sides, run by political hustlers.

The donors and the technicians, political organizers and propagandists who raise most of the money now completely dominate the political process, as shown in Kenneth Vogel’s excellent and revealing new book, “Big Money.” Vogel exposes the secretive billionaires and their consultants, the huge checks they dispense and what they expect for their money. And by sifting through property records of their big homes and vacation retreats, and even visiting some of them, he finds out about the good life rewarded to the most successful consultants.

The emails I receive are another part of the story. They rely on another kind of consultant, who is better over a keyboard in a back room than coddling contributors. Such consultants are technically sharp and able to pull together lists from names accumulated from past campaigns. One source is the 13 million-name Barack Obama list.

The daily emails many others and I receive are guided by these sources. “Pitch in,” said one I received from Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., on behalf of the Democratic Senate committee. A simple keystroke begins the process of sending your contribution of $3 or more, making it easy to give. Much of the money goes through ActBlue, a clearinghouse for Democratic campaign contributions. It has raised $38.4 million for the current election so far, according to OpenSecrets, distributing it to a number of campaigns.

Vogel reports in his book that the biggest and most secretive donors are Republicans, determined this year to increase their majority in the House of Representatives and win the Senate. They include the conservative Koch brothers and gambling billionaire Sheldon Adelson. Guiding them are courtiers to the very rich, so-called operatives such as Karl Rove. Tarnished by their failure to beat Obama and win the Senate in 2012, these advisers are coming back with tenacity this year, determined to prove they are worth their high pay.

The Democrats, too, have secretive committees, as well as their digital small-contribution machine. But Vogel sensed a difference. He said the Republican security people chased him out of closed fat-cat meetings in the manner of hostile police, while the Democrats, who also made him leave, at least seemed embarrassed about doing it. Of course the big donors to the GOP are in “the 1 per cent,” scorning those who are not, such as reporters.

The whole bunch of them — Democrats and Republicans — are financing what OpenSecrets said is the most expensive campaign of the year, the tight race in North Carolina between the Democratic incumbent senator, Kay Hagan, and Republican Thom Tilles. A total of $55.7 million has already been spent.

The same conduct has been going on as long as there have been elections. What makes this different is that so much money is now involved and the donors are so anonymous. For that we can thank the Supreme Court’s 2010 Citizens United decision, which permitted the creation of political action committees known as super PACs, which can accept unlimited contributions from corporations, unions and individuals. Along with this has been the growth of tax-exempt organizations, taking advantage of loopholes in the tax laws to accept contributions without disclosing the names of the donors.

The system has always stunk. Before today’s anonymous donors, there were paper bags stuffed with cash. Records were sketchy. I once had to find paper records in a basement and go through them page by page for skeletal information — “John Smith, Los Angeles.” By the 1980s, the computer capabilities of the Los Angeles Times Poll helped my colleague Henry Weinstein and me to closely analyze the contributors. Weinstein and I found out their occupations, and the computer program arranged them in economic categories, such as land developers and manufacturers. This gave us a pretty good idea of who was calling the shots in Los Angeles.

There is a huge difference between then and now. With all that money and the secret contributors, when the new Congress convenes in January it will be impossible to tell who really calls the shots in Washington no matter which party is publicly in charge.

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