In 2012, super PACs, political nonprofits and billionaire donors kept their favorite candidates on national display well past what should have been their natural expiration dates. The phenomenon seemed unprecedented, but, coming as it did during the first presidential test after the Citizens United decision opened the floodgates for unlimited spending by outside groups, it was, perhaps, not unexpected.
Five years later, that sophisticated and often-shadowy fundraising infrastructure — operating outside the official party committees and campaign apparatuses — has stepped into the spotlight and appears ready for its close up.
The conservative Koch brothers attested to that fact when they announced to donors at their annual (and heretofore private) Palm Springs retreat that their network of political organizations would spend an eye-popping $889 million in the 2016 presidential and congressional races.
The spending, itself, is extraordinary — the nearly $1 billion the Koch network, with its 17 allied organizations, are planning to spend eclipses the combined $723 million spent by the Democratic and Republican National Committees in the 2012 presidential race — and it is also about double the $400 million the Koch-affiliated groups spent in the 2012 elections, according to an analysis by the Center for Responsive Politics and the Washington Post.
What then seemed like an ungainly sum failed to put the Kochs’ favored candidate in the White House, but it apparently failed to dull the brothers’ enthusiasm for campaign spending.
Campaign finance experts note that the far-reaching network, funded by both the Kochs and hundreds of their conservative allies, is akin to a party unto itself — with a few notable distinctions. Whereas the parties must still abide by campaign contribution limits and disclose their donors, the Koch-affiliated groups have no such rules governing how they operate.
“The Democratic and Republican parties represent huge segments of the electorate, huge segments of America that are people of modest means and the parties are funded by contributions that come in relatively small amounts,” said Paul Ryan, senior counsel to the Campaign Legal Center, an advocate for campaign finance reform. “By contrast, the Koch brothers’ organization that intends to spend as much or more than a political party, they are funded by a small group of hugely wealthy political donors, and they don’t represent America the way the political parties do.”
But this time around, the Kochs — and the beneficiaries of their largesse — appear to be far less reticent about discussing the brothers’ hand in shaping the 2016 elections.
For the first time, the Kochs offered a look into their retreat, by opening up a Sunday night panel featuring three prospective 2016 candidates to the media via a livestream. Republican Sens. Marco Rubio of Florida, Ted Cruz of Texas and Rand Paul of Kentucky jousted on topics like Cuba policy, defense spending and sanctions on Iran.
Asked if mega-donors had too much influence over the political process, Rubio was defiant. “As opposed to Hollywood or the mainstream media, you mean, or other multibillion-dollar entities that try to influence American politics every day?” he asked.
“I believe in freedom of speech and I believe spending money on political campaigns is a form of political speech that is protected under the Constitution,” Rubio added. “And the people who seem to have a problem with it are the ones who only want unions to be able to do it, their friends in Hollywood to be able to do it and their friends in the media to be able to do it.”
Ted Cruz too chimed in, calling Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid’s repeated attacks on the Koch brothers in the 2012 and 2014 cycles, “grotesque and offensive.”
The panel constituted three major 2016 candidates openly jockeying for the blessing of the Koch network, Ryan noted—a clear subversion of the Citizens United ruling whose rationale for allowing outside groups to spend unlimited sums was that they would not be able to directly coordinate with candidates or their committees.
But that doesn’t mean it hasn’t happened before. Last April, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, Ohio Gov. John Kasich and former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush flew to Las Vegas for an audition of sorts with billionaire Sheldon Adelson, who famously kept Newt Gingrich’s 2012 presidential campaign afloat, even after the former Speaker’s electoral prospects all but vanished. So unabashed were the prospective candidates’ pandering to the casino mogul that The Atlantic’s Molly Ball dubbed the event the “Sheldon Adelson Suck-Up Fest.”
“The laws are a joke,” Ryan said. “The coordination rules are a joke, when presidential candidates can campaign to a dark money group like the Kochs.”
But while the Koch’s carnival of cash continues to amaze, other trends in campaign spending that first emerged in 2012 now seem commonplace. Presidential super PACs dedicated to boosting the fortunes of a single candidate are more necessity than novelty in a modern campaign. Ready for Hillary, the super PAC backing former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, raised $11 million in 2014, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. Bush recently formed his own Right to Rise super PAC. And four candidates, according to National Journal, have formed political nonprofits, which have even looser rules around disclosure, doing the legwork for their nascent presidential efforts.
There was a time when an $11 million war chest would have seemed like a big kitty, but next to the spending of a few exceptionally fat cats, it barely purrs.