McConnell Exposed on Campaign Finance

Thursday, April 17th, 2014 and is filed under Blog, Elections

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One thing we consistently hear from apologists for Sen. Mitch McConnell is that we need to keep him in the Senate because he is a stalwart defender of the First Amendment.  They contend that his strong stance against campaign finance laws shows that he is a committed conservative.  After all, he has a Supreme Court decision named after himself, McConnell v FEC.

Those of us who have followed his career of treachery have always known that McConnell stands for nothing other than his own power.  He is neither a liberal nor a conservative; his ideology is power.  As such, when it benefits his interests to align with the conservative view on a given policy issue, he will do so.  But when it benefits his political interests to align with liberals (whether publicly or privately), he will drop conservatives like a hot potato.  The issue of campaign finance is no different for him.

It is quite obvious why McConnell opposed the McCain-Feingold campaign finance laws.  He was not a steadfast defender of the First Amendment, rather given that he is a campaign animal and his political future relied on a constant flow of special interest money, he aligned with those of us who defended the Constitution.  However, now that he has mastered the art of campaign finance under the McCain-Feingold regime, albeit a watered-down iteration of the law, he is “comfortable” with supporting limits on free speech.

Yesterday, the Hill reported on McConnell’s “surprising” change of tune on limits to campaign donations:

Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.) and Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus are taking different stances on whether the Supreme Court should go further to strike down limits on campaign donations.

McConnell traditionally has been one of the most outspoken critics of campaign finance restrictions, but he has downplayed the prospect of erasing limits on gifts to individual candidates and political parties.

When asked if contribution limits could be done away with altogether, McConnell last week said, “I think that’s not likely to happen. We’re very comfortable and have been for many years with contribution limits on gifts to parties and to candidates.”

This begs the question: if an individual has the constitutional right to donate unlimited funds to some well-connected Super PAC, why should he not have the ability to donate to a candidate he believes will share his values?

Moreover, moving beyond the constitutional issues, it’s important to view this in the context of political outcomes.  As we have learned from the past decade, limits on campaign financing actually helps protect the permanent political class, particularly incumbent politicians.  Far from “taking money out of politics,” campaign finance limitations actually helped empower a few well-connected donors like George Soros and Karl Rove’s sphere of donors who helped establish Super PACs to influence elections on behalf of big government politicians.

On the other hand, it is upstart candidates and PACs, especially those who are trying to upend the political class and challenge incumbents, who are severely limited to campaign finance laws.

Specifically, people like Mitch McConnell have mastered the art of the Super PAC for his allies in Congress, as I noted in The Hill story.  They know enough rich donors that they can pool together resources and actually create a comparative advantage over their opponents.  Our “citizen legislator” candidates who lack the connections to this donor class must often rely on a handful of wealthy people who share our values in order to jumpstart their campaign.

Hence, the limit on individual donations to candidates severely impairs our ability to knock out incumbents.  McConnell and his allies can attend one K Street dinner with several hundred attendees maxing out to their respective campaigns.  Even with a limit of $2,600, that incumbent can walk away from the dinner with several hundred thousand dollars.  Our candidates obviously lack such a well-connected circle of opulent politicos.  They might have just a few wealthy patriots who support their cause, along with a number of other grassroots supporters who cannot give more than $50 or $100 to their campaign – irrespective of caps on donations.

Consequently, McConnell is comfortable with the status quo.  He knows that under the current system, his lieutenants will still raise enough money while blocking out his opponents from ever gaining traction. Indeed, Senator Thad Cochran (R-MS) went from barely raising money last year to hauling in $1.7 million in just the first quarter of 2014.  The caps on individual donations don’t affect the permanent political class.

We will never take money out of politics.  Indeed even a small congressional district covers 750,000 people.  It takes large sums of money to obtain the requisite degree of name ID in order to win a campaign.  However, the current system ensures that it is only the wealthy donors of the political class, the unions, and Super PACs have a say in the political process.  Knocking down all of the campaign finance restrictions, not just those that benefit the ruling class, while imperfect, will level the playing field for all candidates.

And that is exactly what McConnell and Co. fear most.  They are quite “comfortable” with the status quo.