As 'Citizens United' Turns 2, SuperPACs Draw Protests
Saturday is South Carolina's Republican presidential primary. It's also the second anniversary of the Supreme Court's famous Citizens Uniteddecision.
That's the case that allows corporations to explicitly support or attack specific candidates. The day will be marked with attack ads — and protests.
The Republican presidential race has covered just three states so far. And superPACs linked to candidates Mitt Romney, Newt Gingrich, Rick Santorum and Ron Paul have spent a total of $20 million. They're feeding voters a heavy diet of negativity.
One ad from a superPAC supporting Romney calls Santorum a "Washington insider, big spender."
The superPACs are metastasizing. I think it's very disturbing that the groups are bigger than the candidates and almost bigger than the party committees themselves.
Another, from a superPAC backing Gingrich, intones: "Mitt Romney. Not conservative. Not electable."
"Newt Gingrich's attacks are called foolish, out of bounds and disgusting," says another ad from the superPAC supporting Romney.
SuperPACs are a product of Citizens United and some subsequent legal decisions. They collect unlimited contributions, and when they're aligned with specific candidates, they operate as shadow campaigns.
A Weird Relationship
A candidate can raise money for a superPAC, but he cannot tell it what to do.
It doesn't seem to matter because, almost always, the superPAC is run by people who have spent years working for the candidate.
All of the candidates get tongue-tied trying to explain that weird relationship.
During a Republican candidates debate in South Carolina on Monday night, Romney tried to distance himself from what he called "my superPAC."
"I haven't spoken with any of the people that are involved with my superPAC in months," he said.
This wouldn't be such a big deal if the superPACS were only a sideshow. But they seem to be outspending the candidates who are trundling along, raising money in chunks of $2,500 or less.
As to where the superPACs get those big contributions, we don't know. They haven't disclosed their donors since last July.
Lawyer Ken Gross, who has been in campaign finance law since the 1970s, has a client list that has included Republicans and Democrats, corporations and trade associations.
He says he didn't start out thinking Citizens United was that big of a deal. "I have become a convert," he says now. And superPACs are what changed his mind. He says they're blowing the lid off the financing of elections.
"The superPACs are metastasizing," Gross says. "I think it's very disturbing that the groups are bigger than the candidates and almost bigger than the party committees themselves."
A 'Movement Moment'?
The state Supreme Court in Montana recently rejected Citizens United, upholding a state law that bans corporate money in partisan politics.
But as superPACs have grown over the past two years, there's been relatively little pushback against the Citizens Uniteddecision from the organized groups that criticize unfettered political money.
Those groups hope to change that on Friday.
"There are hundreds of events going on at locations around the country," says Marge Baker of People for the American Way, one of the organizing groups.
"It feels like we're in a movement moment. You know, you can't look at Iowa, you can't look at South Carolina, and not understand how much influence Citizens United has had on our elections and our democracy," Baker says.
On Friday, the main event will be demonstrations outside federal courthouses. More than 100 are planned.
A smaller wave of demonstrations is planned for Saturday, including Occupy the Corporation actions at various corporate headquarters and rallies at several state capitols.
The coalitions include good-government groups, liberals and environmentalists, including, in his own video, the leader of the effort to block the Keystone XL pipeline.
"Hello, I'm Bill McKibben. I'm an environmentalist. And I wanted to tell you why environmentalists are getting onboard in a big way with this fight against Citizens United," McKibben says in the video.
It's a fight that, if successful, would amend the Constitution. The amendment would undo Citizens United along with an older Supreme Court decision that prevents regulation of political spending.
"We're under no illusion here," says Robert Reich, chairman of Common Cause, one of the groups organizing the campaign. "The fight is going to take a very long time to win. But voters are fed up. They need a way to make their voices heard. And we need to start right now."
The deregulatory side of the debate is keeping a lower profile today. At the Institute for Justice, attorney Steve Simpson says the demonstrations are fine.
"People banding together in groups and exercising their right to free speech, to protest a court decision that held that people should be able to band together in groups and exercise their right to free speech — that's a little bit ironic," Simpson says.
That's the heart of Citizens Unitedright there — that corporate-financed partisan ads are quite the same as activists pushing for a constitutional amendment.
And given that an amendment requires a two-thirds vote in both houses of Congress, plus approval from 38 states, Citizens United could be around for many more anniversaries.
Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.