As the New Hampshire senate race continues to tighten, outside groups seeking to influence the outcome are getting more creative. One group “tracked” Republican Scott Brown down a river via kayak. Another described Brown as a “lobbyist” — technically untrue — and is now gleefully encouraging his camp to sue.
Provided no laws are broken, Granite Staters should welcome these and other tactics employed to get their attention. A freedom-based campaign finance system will occasionally produce the outlandish and the tasteless. But it is far superior to having government decide the quantity and quality of political discourse.
Outside money has several benefits: It neutralizes the enormous advantages of incumbency; it encourages a better-informed citizenry by enabling outside groups to directly engage adversaries in ways a campaign may not be able (or want) to; and it allows all interested parties to speak about political campaigns on their own terms, uncensored by control-freak candidate consultants.
Incumbency creates almost insurmountable hurdles for challengers. In the last half-century, Senate reelection rates have rarely dipped below 80 percent, the House is much higher. Senator Shaheen has unsurpassed name recognition, paid staffers who have a six-year record of helping constituents, local offices, and a built-in donor constituency.
Outside money levels the playing field — a lodestar of the left. It can alert constituents when lawmaker positions do not align with their preferences, as a recent study found. Shaheen, for example, is confronting voter anger over the border crisis and her party’s unpopular (and tone deaf) president. Brown may run into trouble with GOP primary voters over his stance on guns. Super PACs and 501(c)(4) nonprofits pointing out these weaknesses don’t “buy” votes, they inform voters. The results may seem a disorganized jumbled mess but this is exactly what the Founders intended, with the people the final arbiter.
Outside money also allows advocacy groups to respond quickly to attacks in ways the campaign may not have the resources or desire to. In responding to Brown’s surge, Shaheen’s campaign manager stated they would be “correcting … Big Oil’s dishonest attacks.”
This is itself a dishonest attack. No obvious oil-backed money is playing heavily in the race. As an industry, oil and gas interests have contributed a paltry $34 thousand to Scott Brown’s campaign, ranking it his 14th most supportive industry. Billionaire environmentalist Tom Steyer’s group on the other hand has spent over $1.1 million and ranks third in independent-expenditure spending. Brown’s campaign can leave this rebuttal to outside groups who relish these proxy fights.
The current system also attracts cynical opportunists, but they are no less deserving of the chance to speak. Harvard Professor Larry Lessig’s Mayday PAC — an outfit ostensibly designed to cultivate popular support for campaign finance reform — ranks first in outside spending. Mayday PAC has no interest in their purported candidate, GOP also-ran Jim Rubens, actually winning the seat as a staffer has readily admitted. Lessig’s real goal, besides self-promotion, is to damage Scott Brown.
Lessig’s animus stems from Brown’s refusal to take the ‘People’s Pledge,’ as he did previously in Massachusetts. The pledge requires both candidates to disavow outside spending and donate that money to charity. Not many have pledged this go-round. Nevertheless, reformers tout it as a model for low-cost, issue-oriented, ‘clean’ campaigns. The 2012 Warren/Brown match up, however, didn’t live up to expectations.
Nor was the campaign a policy-oriented civility fest. Warren exposed herself by falsely claiming Native American ancestry. Brown’s Republican brand was an easy source of mudslinging in deep-blue Massachusetts.
Thus, all the People’s Pledge really accomplished was to funnel political money almost exclusively to the candidates who were better able to control the messages and limit the “distractions” of free and open debate. This is exactly what Shaheen wants in New Hampshire where she can then overtake Brown with her other natural advantages.
Brown wisely declined. New Hampshire will thus get a free, open, and sometimes wacky contest. Everyone from the true believer, to the single-issue PAC, to the naked opportunist will have their chance to persuade voters. American democracy is better for it.
Paul H. Jossey is a lawyer living in Alexandria, Virginia. Please follow him on Twitter.