Tuesday, February 11, 2014 —
RALEIGH — January marked the fourth anniversary of the landmark U.S. Supreme Court decision in Citizens United v. FEC. That 5-4 ruling dismantled key campaign finance reforms and further opened the floodgates for political spending.
Four years and two election cycles later, it appears that the largest impact of the Citizens United decision may be the rise of so-called “super PACs.”
Super PACs are political action committees that can accept unlimited donations from individual donors and, as a result of Citizens United, corporations and unions as well. Unlike candidates for federal office who must abide by donation limits currently set at $2,600 per individual, these super PACs can, and do, accept checks from wealthy donors in any amount.
While super PACs are prohibited by law from coordinating directly with candidates, they can operate a sort of shadow campaign, running ads supporting one candidate or attacking another, with the intent of shaping the outcome of an election.
In 2012, we saw countless examples of what super PACs can do and the influence they have on elections. At the federal level, super PACs played a big role in the presidential election for both sides, but had an especially strong impact during the Republican primary.
Although eventual nominee Mitt Romney was the favorite for much of that contest, a super PAC formed to support the candidacy of Newt Gingrich, dubbed “Winning Our Future,” allowed him to remain competitive much longer than most experts anticipated.
Gingrich had to abide by contribution limits and struggled to compete financially with Romney, but the super PAC formed to support him received a $5 million check from one wealthy donor and his wife. That mega-donation kept Gingrich competitive in the primaries for perhaps longer than he normally would have been able to stay viable in an age before super PACs.
Here in North Carolina we saw super PACs play a significant role in 2012 as well, but in a race not a lot of voters were talking about. A super PAC was formed to support N.C. Supreme Court Justice Paul Newby in his re-election race against N.C. Court of Appeals Judge Sam Ervin. That super PAC, the N.C. Judicial Coalition, spent around $3 million supporting Newby’s candidacy in a contest that typically doesn’t receive much attention.
It can be argued that the infusion of super PAC spending on the side of Newby tipped the election in his direction. Ervin led in the polls for much of the race, but once the super PAC hit the airwaves in the closing weeks of the campaign the balance swung and Newby ended up winning. Even if outside spending wasn’t the determining factor in who won the race, it certainly played a significant part.
What can North Carolina voters expect in 2014? Well, super PACs have become the new normal and with a highly competitive U.S. Senate race in our state this year, voters are bound to see a vast increase in super PAC spending.
In fact, in future elections we can anticipate almost every statewide and federal candidate in a competitive election to be bolstered by a super PAC.
Unfortunately, this outside spending tends to be negative and distract voters from the real issues and concerns facing our state and country. And the support of such wealthy super PACs can severely handicap average people with an interest in public service but no deep pockets or well-financed friends.
Our democracy functions best when everyone has an equal say and equal influence, but the Citizens United decision and the rise of super PACs is certainly putting that notion to the test.
Brent Laurenz is executive director of the N.C. Center for Voter Education and a contributor to TheVoterUpdate.com. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.