Renewal of the establishment, fueled by money

In the run-up to this year’s general election, much attention has been drawn to the ebb and flow of fundraising, ad buys and political money. It was just two years ago in Citizens United that the Supreme Court famously lifted some of the campaign finance restrictions imposed by McCain-Feingold. Many have worried about who would benefit (or be harmed) most from this new regulatory environment. We can now better assess how life is in this new post-Citizens United world. Has more money exacerbated our increasingly polarized political system and empowered those at the political extremes?

Recent preliminary research shared by Michael Malbin at a conference organized by the Brookings Institution and the Campaign Finance Institute reveals much about the answer to these questions. The data are drawn from Federal Election Commission (FEC) reports through September 15th 2012 and 2014.

{mosads}In short, though cautioning that the findings are subject to revision, Malbin says “no”: 2014 has seen the political establishment rejuvenated, particularly during the party primaries. Total independent expenditures went up appreciably, but the establishment drove more of the increases.

First, total independent expenditures from outside organizations on primary contests went up nearly 50 percent from $54.8 million in 2012 to $83.2 million in 2014. As expected, our restriction-free political life is now filled with much more “independent” money.

Second, the composition of this independent spending changed notably. In the 2012 primaries, conservative organizations had $40.5 million in independent expenditures or three-quarters of the total. In 2014, conservative groups increased spending to $56.8 million, but their share of the total dipped to 68 percent because liberal groups doubled independent expenditures from $9.3 million (2012) to $18.8 million (2014).

Third, there is even more interesting change within independent expenditures during Republican primaries. In 2012, antiestablishment primary candidates, including now-Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas), were in their ascendency. Nearly two-thirds (59 percent) or $23 million in expenditures came from anti-establishment organizations. Two years later, antiestablishment groups gave less overall and also lost control to more establishment organizations. This year, establishment groups gave nearly $30 million and made up a majority (55 percent) of total expenditures. This was led by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce that increased independent expenditures $12 million from 2012 to 2014. The Club for Growth, on the other hand, decreased spending in Republican primaries $5.7 million from 2012.

We do not have final spending data on the 2014 general election, but if the trend from the primaries continues, it would seem the Republican establishment is in a good position to regain control, not just of the Senate, but also of the policy agenda of the party. Much credit for this will have to be given to the Chamber of Commerce.

Brown is an assistant professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, City University of New York. He is the author of Lobbying the New President: Interests in Transition (Routledge, 2012).

Tags Campaign finance Chamber of Commerce Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission Club for Growth Ted Cruz

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