The Democrats’ donor disclosure talking point this election cycle has been something of a Trojan horse.
By itself, the issue of whether donors to political campaigns should be identified is a worthy debate, but a complicated one.
Democrats’ complaints have allowed them to make two separate more headline-grabbing arguments: that foreign money might be coming into the election and that they were being outspent by Republicans.
Both of these specters pack far more punch when it comes to rousing the Democratic liberal base, which is key for the party in power to limiting their losses next Tuesday.
The only problem is that the foreign money charge is unproven. And the claim that Democrats are being outspent by Republicans is untrue, according to the latest reports.
The New York Times reported Wednesday that as of mid-October, Democrats had spent more than Republicans when they added up party committees, outside groups, direct mail and other types of spending. Though numbers are incomplete, Politico put the difference at $856 million for Democrats to $677 million for Republicans.
The foreign money charge originated with ThinkProgress, a liberal blog run by the Center for American Progress Action Fund, in early October. The blog said that the U.S. Chamber of Commerce’s general fund, which it uses to run political campaign TV ads, included donations from foreign sources.
The Democratic National Committee ran a TV ad accusing the Chamber and Republicans Karl Rove and Ed Gillespie, by name, of “stealing our democracy” and said it “appears they’ve even taken secret foreign money to influence our elections.”
President Obama himself never accused Republicans of funding political ads with foreign money, but said it was impossible to know if they were not.
The administration came under fire after top adviser to the president David Axelrod was pressed by CBS’s Bob Schieffer whether Democrats had any proof of foreign money being used by the Chamber or Republicans.
“Is that the best you can do?” Schieffer said.
Several Democrats, including in Senate leadership, have told TheDC that the foreign money charge was a stretch. One Democrat Wednesday called it “a bit specious.”
Dee Dee Myers, who was White House press secretary under former President Bill Clinton, said that she thinks “it’s the idea of ‘secret’ money that’s gotten people’s attention.”
It’s hard to imagine that the disclosure issue would have received as much attention if the foreign money charge hadn’t been the match that lit the fire.
Jonathan Collegio, spokesman for American Crossroads, said that “the Democrats invented a false issue in the foreign money accusations to distract from the unemployment figures.”
As for being outspent, Obama and Democrats spoke dramatically in early October about being overwhelmed by outside conservative groups such as American Crossroads and the Chamber.
“It is estimated that Democratic groups are being outspent seven to one,” President Obama told a rally in Bowie, Md., on Oct. 7. “We’re going to need to fight their millions of dollars with millions of voices.”
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, California Democrat, said that Democrats were being outspent eight to one, and the Huffington Post reported that outside groups aligned with Democrats were set to spend only $7 million compared to $200 million from GOP-aligned groups.
Both Democratic and Republican leaning groups are set to spend as much as $250 million this cycle, if not more.
Ultimately, conservatives said they weren’t worried about the messaging tactic.
“What candidate echoed it in ads, on stump and in debates?” said Karl Rove, who was a top White House adviser to former President George W. Bush and helped found American Crossroads and another group, the American Action Network, which is also running TV ads across the country for Republican candidates.
But Bryan Lentz, a Democrat running for Joe Sestak’s old congressional seat in Pennsylvania’s 7th district, actually made the campaign finance point a major issue at a rally with Vice President Joe Biden Wednesday morning.
“I’ll fight to reform this campaign finance issue,” Lentz said, arguing that the middle class is hurt by “unlimited anonymous money to corrupt our political process.”
“During the Great Depression the Democratic party stood up for the little guy. If you send me to Washington, I’ll stand up for the middle guy,” Lentz said.
Kevin Madden, an adviser to former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, a Republican, said that the disclosure debate “isn’t moving the needle with voters.”
“The White House lost by attacking the Chamber at a time of economic slowdown,” he said.