The latest demonstration of the impact that Citizens United is having on this election season is a $50 million corporate-funded ad blitz to support Republican House congressional candidates. While some Republican leaders are finally acknowledging the role of anonymous corporate money in buying influence, the ads funded by those dollars remain misleading.
The $50 million "House Surge Strategy" is being carried out by a coordinated alliance of right-wing "outside interest groups" largely funded by anonymous corporate donors, including the billionaire-managed American Action Network, the Karl Rove-affiliated American Crossroads, and a relative newcomer, the Commission on Hope, Growth, and Opportunity.
Each of these groups is less than a year old, and each formed after Citizens United made it permissible for corporations to spend unlimited funds influencing the outcome of elections. While many of these outside interest groups have defended their activities under the patriotic guise of "free speech," few have been as candid as Scott Reed, the Republican operative in charge of the Commission on Hope, Growth, and Opportunity. Reed hails the fact that "Citizens United opened the door for the unparalleled participation by corporations at the financial level." And participate they have -- spending by outside interest groups is up at least 500% since the last midterm election, with pro-Republican groups outspending those favoring Democrats by seven-to-one.
Reed is also particularly forthcoming about why these groups are arguably skirting regulations to hide the sources of their funds. Each group participating in the "House Surge Strategy" is organized under the 501(c) section of the IRS tax code, which does not require that the names of donors be publicly disclosed. This procedural trick acts to prohibit voters from discerning the motivations behind the messages funded by these astronomical donations.
The "501c's are the keys to the political kingdom," says Reed, "because they allow anonymity." This anonymity, of course, allows corporations to donate without fear of public backlash from engaged citizens who might disagree with their campaign spending, as happened with the boycott of the Target corporation after donating to an anti-gay candidate in Minnesota.
Honesty About Anonymous Attack Ads, But Not Necessarily In the Ads
Although Reed's admissions avoid the strained, self-righteous patriotism that some Republicans have evoked to defend anonymous funding, the actual content of these corporate-funded attack ads is not nearly as honest. The ads are particularly angry and misleading.
Anonymity is breeding inaccuracies and acridity. According to former Federal Elections Commission (FEC) counsel and election lawyer Larry Noble, "Those groups that don't disclose are getting more money and getting more aggressive with their ads," because wealthy companies are shielded from fear of accountability for funding misleading or inflammatory messages.
Under these new campaign rules, there is clearly an ability to spin and mislead without reprisal. A great number of ads funded by these right-wing "outside interest groups" have been deemed misleading. For example, American Crossroads' ads have been deemed "barely true" and "seriously misleading" by Politifact, "badly misleading" and wildly exaggerated by FactCheck.Org, and "incomplete" and "mucked up with distortions" by the Cleveland Plain Dealer, to name a few.
As we approach the final weeks of this campaign season, the spending and spinning will only increase as these cleverly-named commissions, clubs, committees and groups make a final push to elect pro-corporate politicians. Laws permitting secrecy may give anonymous corporate spenders "the keys to the political kingdom." However, it is not too late for voters to change the locks by refusing to elect politicians who are heavily supported by these secretly-funded corporate front groups.