Citizens United Impact on Down Ticket Races

Nov 5, 2012

Credit Photo Illustration/Clay Masters

After all the winners and losers of Election Day are decided many campaigns and strategists will look at what they did right or wrong. This year there’s a whole new factor thrown into the election, the landmark Supreme Court ruling called Citizens United has changed the game for down ticket races.

Turn on a TV in or around Des Moines, Ames or Sioux City and you’ll like see one of these ads… attacking the candidates in the race for Iowa’s new 4th congressional district… Republican incumbent Steve King and his Democratic challenger Christie Vilsack.

These ads aren’t paid for by either of the candidate’s campaigns. But by political action committees… outside spending. You probably know them as Super PACs. And in 2010 the United States Supreme Court held that the First Amendment actually makes it so the government can’t restrict independent political expenditures by corporations and unions. Unleash the outside money floodgates. In this new 4th district alone, the amount of that outside money attacking King and Vilsack adds up to more than 1.6 million dollars each.  

"Why Citizens United isn’t the disaster that some people make it out to be is that basically the main effect of it is in advertising," said Iowa State Political Scientist David Peterson. "We’re seeing a lot more advertising dollars being spent, what these dollars can’t be spent on is the ground game."

"I don’t think many political scientists have worked in a campaign," said Jeff Link, an Iowa Democratic strategist whose run reelection campaigns for Sen. Tom Harkin and was a consultant for President Obama’s Iowa campaign in 2008. Link said television and radio ads have a big impact on voters.

"We’ve created a system (with Citizens United) where unaccountable, unknown donors are the loudest voice in an election," Link said. "It’s a disaster."

Matt Strawn, a Republican political strategist and former chairman of the Iowa Republican Party, says candidates are even getting caught in the crossfire of 3rd party groups attacking each other.

"You could have one wealthy individual or one wealthy organization decide that their pet issues is the issue that needs to be talked about in a particular congressional race or statewide race," Strawn said. "As a candidate you lose control over any kind of messaging you want to do."

Strawn stressed the importance of campaigns hitting the streets… knocking doors and making calls… especially in down ticket races. Even some of the Super PACS are focusing on the ground game. 

In a small strip mall close to some railroad tracks in Ames, the CREDO Super PAC has set up an office.

Their campaign is to oust 10 tea party congressmen. Here in Iowa, the target is Congressman King. On this day, the Super PACs President Becky Bond is visiting from California.

"If we could shut down every Super PAC in the country including our own we would absolutely do it," Bond said. 

Bond says they’d like to take it back to a time when voters actually get to decide elections. But in the months after Election Day, former Iowa GOP chairman Matt Strawn said outside groups will have to assess their money’s effectiveness.

"People are going to have to decide was the juice worth the squeeze when it came to this kind of spending," Strawn said. "Did it do more to turn off voters, did it do more to add to the cynicism people already have about the process?"

Democratic strategist Jeff Link goes one step farther.

"I think the market may drive some of this and these donors will say uhhh, you told us if we give you all this money things would change," Link said. 

If nothing changes, those outside campaigns will ask if all that money was really worth it for a down ticket race.