Parties no longer drive campaigns

Party’s over. Literally.

The historic midterm elections of 2010 will prove that the Democratic and Republican parties can no longer drive campaigns and win elections unless the Tea Party movement and the 501(c)(4) groups want them to. What was once the province of the national political parties — the anointing of candidates, the raising and apportioning of funds, strategy and messaging — is now out of the parties’ hands. 

The outcome on Nov. 2 is likely to cement the influence of the Tea Party movement and vitiate the power of the GOP establishment for good. Tea Party activists bucked the Republican Party repeatedly in this cycle, helping to defeat seven establishment candidates in U.S. Senate races. And when the power of the Democratic majority is either lost or severely diminished next year, Democrats can look forward to liberals and the netroots left in their own base rising up against the party apparatus once more. 

Even more potent than the anger and energy of outside movements and virtual third parties is a brand-new money game that will hasten the imminent death of the two major parties by allowing enormous contributions to drown out any money the parties can hope to raise and spend. Anonymous donations from corporate and other wealthy interests, permitted by the Supreme Court’s decision in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, are fueling ad campaigns on behalf of astonished candidates who find a barrage of ads against their opponent but have no idea where the largesse is coming from. The ads, which cannot attack candidates, can attack a candidate’s policy positions. 

Spending by such groups, led by Karl Rove’s American Crossroads, which has far outspent the others, jumped from $1.3 million in August to $7 million in September, according to The Washington Post, and is expected to explode in October. While labor unions can now play by the same new rules, they cannot match the money conservative organizations are raising and spending. The new 501(c)(4) “social welfare groups” are nonprofit corporations, and under the rules of their tax code designation aren’t mean to be political organizations. Though regulated by the IRS, the agency is putting little energy into oversight of such groups and their election activities. As The New York Times reported: “The IRS is unlikely to know that some of these groups exist until well after the election because they are not required to seek the agency’s approval until after they file their first tax forms — more than a year after they begin activity.” 

Just as the tradition of journalism was upended by the Internet, crippling brands like the Los Angeles Times or The New York Times as new websites produced and presented the news to larger and larger audiences, the new fundraising landscape — combined with the Tea Party energy that fuels the donations — is dismantling the system in ways most voters won’t understand until long after Election Day. 

A new NBC/Wall Street Journal poll finds that the change voters seek over all is a reduction in the influence of special interests. More than any other change — electing outsiders, a GOP takeover of Congress, a repeal of healthcare reform — a 70 percent majority of respondents chose scaling back the power of special interests as their top political priority.

The new rules regarding the funding of campaigns are, of course, tailor-made for the richest and most powerful interests to dominate the debate in campaigns by burying candidates who cannot match the advertisements dollar for dollar. 

Wait until the Tea Party finds out.

Stoddard is an associate editor of The Hill.