July 3, 2012

Demeritt and Cuzzi
Senate candidates can't control funding – or can they?

QUESTION: “Is there any way to limit the influence of ‘outside money’ in Maine’s U.S. Senate race?”

MICHAEL CUZZI

CONTACT THE AUTHORS

DAN DEMERITT can be contacted at dan@win207.com. Follow him on twitter.com @demerittdan.

MICHAEL CUZZI can be contacted at mjcuzzi@gmail.com. Follow him on twitter.com @CuzziMJ

Put simply, no.

In 2010, the U.S. Supreme Court's decision in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission opened the floodgates to unlimited campaign spending by special interest groups, corporations, unions and wealthy individuals.

Much of that money is funneled to so-called super PACs, which can spend any amount to influence state and federal candidate elections with no requirement to disclose the sources of their funding.

That, regrettably, is the law of the land.

Even so, that hasn't stopped Maine's U.S. Senate candidates from trying to gain a political advantage on the issue.

On the day after the party primary elections, Angus King stole the media spotlight by calling on his general election opponents to eschew campaign spending by outside groups and super PACs.

It was a savvy political move, allowing King to channel voter frustration and cast himself as a reformer intent on fixing a system corrupted by money, influence peddling and quid-pro-quo politics.

However, beyond the effective political stagecraft, King's challenge was largely symbolic and certainly self-serving.

First, the U.S. Senate candidates have no control over outside political expenditures. These groups are required by law to operate independently from the campaigns.

Second, because he is the undisputed front-runner, any outside expenditures would likely target King.

It is hardly a moment of political courage to call for a ban on super PAC spending that conveniently takes yourself out of the crosshairs.

Finally, as a successful businessman and entrepreneur, King has the ability to write his campaign a significant check if his candidacy comes under attack from his opponents or outside interests.

Why would King's fellow candidates, who lack similar personal resources and are unlikely to match King's fundraising prowess, unilaterally disarm by renouncing independent expenditures while King sits atop a personal campaign munitions depot?

For her part, Democratic candidate Cynthia Dill responded to King's challenge by offering one of her own. Dill suggested limiting direct campaign contributions to a maximum of $500 and a prohibition on self-financing.

To her credit, Dill's proposal actually addressed things within the campaigns' direct control. Even so, her proposal smacks of campaign theater.

One of Dill's biggest challenges will be raising money, particularly when much of the traditional Democratic donor base will be writing checks to King.

As a result, Dill's proposal to cap direct campaign contributions and restrict self-financing involves more than a little self-serving political gamesmanship.

Even so, one wonders why Dill would voluntarily propose limiting her own ability to raise money when she will undoubtedly need every dollar available to be competitive.

Charlie Summers is counting on both big donors and outside spending to help him win a U.S. Senate seat that safely belonged to his party for the last 18 years.

If any outside money enters this race, it will likely benefit Summers.

Right-wing ads will portray King as a liberal, big-spending Democrat in independent's clothing and Summers as a moderate Republican most deserving of the voter coalition Sen. Olympia Snowe cultivated over three Senate election cycles.

But for all the political posturing, significant outside spending in Maine's Senate race is no sure bet.

It's possible, given Maine's comparatively cheap media market, that we'll see an early television bomblet from a super PAC or other independent organization to test Angus' mettle and voters' receptiveness to negative messages about him.

If the candidate responds well and voters are unmoved, however, further outside spending will be diverted to competitive races around the country where it can have an actual impact.

Those dollars will remain outside Maine's borders through Election Day unless King stumbles grievously or one of the party candidates catches fire and gives King a real race.

(Continued on page 2)

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