Crafty congressional negotiators inserted deep into the ‘Crominubus’ a campaign finance rider designed to strengthen the political parties. The measure expanded the number of national party accounts and raised the biennial maximum contribution to over $1.5 million. Campaign finance reformers reacted with predictable hyperbole. Democracy 21’s Fred Wertheimer declared it “the most destructive and corrupting campaign finance provisions ever enacted by Congress.”
Henny Penny-ism lubricates fundraising. But reformers gained an unexpected vocalist in their overwrought chorus of condemnation. Tea Party groups complained more powerful parties would stifle their insurgent challengers. Their apprehension is misplaced. Tea Party candidates should look within their own ranks, not the weakened parties, to explain their electoral failures.
The groups evoked their own brand of fundraising-friendly embellishment when describing the rider. David Bossie of Citizens United said it will “strengthen the Washington establishment in both parties and not create a level playing field for candidates who are outside the beltway.” Former Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli of Senate Conservatives Fund struck a similar tone: “The new limits . . . increase political speech for party insiders while silencing the majority of Americans who are fed up with Washington.”
Both miss the mark. First, the Supreme Court declared four decades ago that “leveling the playing field” is an illegitimate policy consideration when regulating political speech. And no one is “silenced” through additional party money.
If the Republican Party attacks Tea Party candidates head on, many Tea Party groups stab them in the back.
No one should question the legitimacy of Bossie’s Citizens United, and Mr. Cuccinelli is a principled, honorable man, (I personally fielded calls in his legal war room on Election Day 2013). But many Tea Party-affiliated groups exist primarily to enrich DC-based political consultants. Candidates espousing these values are means to that treasure. As shown by the Daily Caller, Washington Post, Politico, and anyone else who’s bothered to look, these groups often swindle low-information conservatives with emotional appeals concerning whatever apostate person or organization is currently newsworthy. Little money aids actual candidates.
Mr. Cuccinelli himself was victimized by this strategy. He sued a PAC that allegedly raised $2.2 million off his gubernatorial campaign while actually providing it only $10,000. For the millions these PACs take in, actual wins are virtually nonexistent. They certainly played no part in 2014’s biggest Tea Party coup, the scalping of Eric Cantor.
The rider will undoubtedly benefit the parties, but they will still operate with significant structural disadvantages compared to independent groups, which can collect unlimited contributions. McCain-Feingold (purposely) and Citizens United v. FEC (unwittingly) gutted the parties’ core functions of messaging, field operations, and fundraising — and destabilized the political system in the process.
McCain-Feingold eliminated federal “soft money.” The ban blew a $500,000,000 hole in combined national party budgets and virtually eliminated their coordination with state and local counterparts—many of which are now on life support. National committees fared better in McCain-Feingold’s immediate aftermath but the post-Citizens United rise of Super PACs siphoned money and talent away from the parties and into these less regulated vehicles.
In the 18 recent Senate races that had $1 million or more of independent expenditures, candidates raised $333.1 million; non-party organizations spent $310.4 million, while parties spent just $92.1 million. And it’s not only advertising budgets. Party field operations have also suffered, as the Wendy Davis-Battleground Texas debacle demonstrated.
Of course, the easiest solution for Tea Party candidates would be for Congress to eliminate the middleman and remove candidate contribution limits altogether. The lack of enforced limits enabled the last true outsider to capture a major party presidential nomination — George McGovern in 1972. Candidate-specific Super PACs, allow a weaker version of the angel funder. But as Newt Gingrich discovered in 2012, the lack of coordination means they can hinder as well as help their candidate.
Everyone should have the right to freely associate under whatever banner they choose to influence elections. But funneling scarce resources into often inefficient Tea Party PACs doesn’t help candidates any more than stronger parties will hinder them. Healthy parties do, however, provide strong candidates and ultimately more stable government. The rider will take a small step toward achieving those goals.
Paul H. Jossey is a lawyer in Alexandria, Virginia. Please follow him on Twitter.