Money in politics. Whether you’re a concerned citizen on the right or left, a majority of Americans seems to agree that the influence of moneyed interests on the workings of Congress and on the determination of elections up and down the card is a problem in this country. Perhaps most egregious—though that could just be the nefarious nomenclature talking—is so-called “dark money,” or money spent by politically active nonprofits that, owing to their structure, do not have to disclose the sources of their funds, and thus can essentially receive unlimited amounts from corporate, individual, or union benefactors. As a brief primer on dark money on opensecrets.org explains, in theory, the extent of these nonprofits’ political activities is supposed to be proscribed, but the IRS, whether because it has been hampered by cuts to its funding or because it hasn’t made enforcement a priority, has done little to enforce any limits. Accordingly, spending by these groups has been on the rise in recent election cycles. The amounts are not insignificant either—we’re talking tens of millions, if not hundreds of millions, of dollars in all. Dark money, ahem, casts a long shadow on American politics.
It is with this backdrop in place that we delve into recent reports that Americans for Prosperity, a political network backed by the Koch Brothers, is planning to spend upwards of $400 million in 2018 alone to help try to advance conservative policies. As Kathryn Watson reports for CBS News, “friends” of the network are optimistic about the prospects of conservative candidates in the 2018 midterms after what they deem to be successes in reforms at the Department of Veterans Affairs concerning loosened restrictions on the ability of veterans to seek health care outside the sphere of government, as well as the more recent tax cut authored by Republican leaders, not to mention the addition of conservative Neil Gorsuch to the Supreme Court. Watson underscores the notion that these fundraising efforts are to be made with anticipated difficulties come November. For one, history dictates that the party in the White House doesn’t tend to do well in midterm elections. In addition, polling cited in Watson’s piece has Democrats beating Republicans by an average of about eight percentage points. And then there’s recent Democratic Party successes in Alabama, New Jersey, and Virginia. And then there’s the ever-popular Donald Trump (sarcasm intended).
And yet, spend these Koch Brothers-affiliated political organizations will, including some $20 million on trying to sell the public on the idea that the tax cut passed in late December of last year isn’t, you know, a flaming pile of horse manure. Plus, while the Koch Brothers did not personally spend anything on the 2016 presidential election—maybe because they were as disappointed in the final list of candidates as many of us were, though I could just be projecting—as Watson also indicates, they have apparently warmed to the idea of working with the Trump administration, and “want to protect what they consider significant accomplishments in the administration, and work to further them.” For the record, I wasn’t aware the Trump administration had any significant achievements thus far, but if the Kochs and Co. can find them, more power to them.
With this news about the Koch network pushing its proverbial chips to the center of the table to protect Republican interests (and majorities), it’s not long before the Democrats really start sounding the alarm on the need to counteract the planned record spending on the 2018 midterms. Of course, this means that the Dems will be doing so with one hand on the crank to the air-raid siren and the other pointing directly at your wallet or purse. Not-for-profit organizations, political or not, need to solicit money to operate—this is an unavoidable truth of our world. At the same time, though, who prospective donations will be funding—that is, how the party arrives at its eventual nominee in key races—is significant.
Going back to Kathryn Watson’s article, on the GOP side, the Koch Brothers, Americans for Prosperity, and their ilk have not specified what they’d be looking for in candidates to back, but whether erring on the side of economic or social conservatism, it seems pretty safe to assume they’d be erring; the only thing mentioned within the span of the piece is that Koch Family network leaders issued a statement expressing vague support for President Trump’s path to citizenship for young immigrants, but not without concern for ending “chain migration.” “Concern” is an understatement. As the Baltimore Sun and other critics of Donald Trump’s recently-unveiled immigration plan insist, aside from the requirement of a border wall in exchange for protection for Dreamers being an absurdity, curtailing practices like chain migration and the diversity visa lottery not only distorts the facts on the numbers of foreign nationals who come to the United States in this way, but risks putting the country at a serious disadvantage by communicating an inhospitable attitude toward all immigrants, and depriving the nation of needed entrepreneurship, innovation, and vitality given an aging workforce. To be sure, these arguments can be extrapolated to the immigration discussion as a whole, but here, they are particularly relevant.
What about the Democrats, though? Should they stick to their guns and ride it out with their preferred centrist strategy, banking on history, polling, and Republican retirements to reclaim electoral momentum this year? Numerous outside observers would respond in the negative, and would rather see the Dems “go left to be right.” Sophia Tesfaye, deputy politics editor for Salon, indicates as much in her own reaction piece to the recent news regarding Koch-backed plans to boost spending by some 60% relative to 2016, and relates the additional number-crunching in terms of seats in Congress that explains why Republican donors plan to invest so heavily in the 2018 midterms. Tim Phillips, president of Americans for Prosperity, for one, believes 80 seats will be competitive this fall. Meanwhile, as Tesfaye explains, Democrats only need to net 24 seats in November to reclaim a majority in the House, and with some 16 Republicans set to retire and make their vacant seats liable to flip in favor of the Dems, as identified by the Kochs—and this is before Rodney Frelinghuysen from my home state made his own announcement about retirement—this leaves little margin for error, so to speak, for GOP leadership re the midterms. Tesfaye also cites the same “generic ballot” polling which suggests a decided overall advantage for Democrats over Republicans in hypothetical matchups between the two major parties, with the former enjoying an even more decided advantage among women. Based on this, 2018 could see the same “blue wave” experienced with the 2006 midterms during George W. Bush’s tenure.
Obviously, the above presents the Democratic Party with a rare opportunity. What is less obvious, Tesfaye argues, is that it also provides the Dems with a real chance to institute the kind of reforms that Bernie Sanders et al. would argue the party needs to make if it is going to compete with the Republican Party and thrive over the long term. From the article:
It’s clearly rough out there for Republicans in the House of Representatives, but what may be less obvious is how that provides a prime opportunity for progressives who want to push Democrats to the left. While five of the first six Republicans to quit during this term did so to accept jobs in President Trump’s administration, Democrats’ attempt to regain a House majority relies on a number of high-profile Republicans’ planned retirements. Freeing the field of an incumbent advantage allows not only a chance for Democrats to compete in the general election, but also an opportunity to nominate candidates who more accurately represent the most motivated Democratic voters.
Take, for instance, the seat vacated by veteran Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., in the coastal suburbs of San Diego. Democrat Doug Applegate came within 2,000 votes of unseating Congress’ wealthiest member in 2016, as Hillary Clinton won the district by more than seven points. In 2012, Mitt Romney beat Barack Obama by that same margin in the district. With Issa’s retirement, Applegate, a retired Marine colonel, is being challenged by progressive clean energy professional Mike Levin. Both Democrats are campaigning on a decidedly progressive “Medicare-for-all” platform.
In invoking the idea of primary challenges, it’s worth talking about whether primary challenges in the abstract are an important part of the political process and to selecting a congressional, presidential, or other candidate, or whether a competitive race in advance of the general election does more harm than good. Speaking of Bernie Sanders and his bid to secure the Democratic Party presidential nomination for the 2016 election, if you ask staunch Hillary Clinton supporters, Sanders not only hurt her prospects of winning the whole shebang, but did lasting damage to the Democratic Party infrastructure in holding on as long as he did. If you ask Bernie’s faithful, meanwhile, as well as any number of independent commentators, the surprisingly and robustly competitive challenge he offered made Clinton a better candidate, and did well to engage younger voters who otherwise might not have been engaged or were simply disenfranchised with the politics of the moment, especially coming down from the highs of Barack Obama and “YES WE CAN!” Sophia Tesfaye, too, evidently sees merit in holding more than mere walkovers to the general election. Continuing with the sentiments about the opportunity developing before the Dems’ eyes, she writes:
Throw out the conventional wisdom that contested primaries hurt a party’s chances in the general election (which was likely never true anyway). A competitive Democratic primary could get more people involved in the process, boosting turnout in November’s general election. Look to Virginia’s gubernatorial election in 2017 for the clearest example of how that might play out in the Democrats’ favor. Some Democrats feared that a primary challenge by progressive Tom Perriello in the Virginia race could fatally wound establishment favorite Ralph Northam, but the intra-party competition led to increased media coverage and intense voter interest. After beating Perriello in the primary, Northam went on to trounce Republican Ed Gillespie by nine points in an election most observers expected to be neck and neck.
In midterms, low voter turnout makes the size of the Republican base in many purple-to-red districts appear much larger than it actually is. Coupled with egregious gerrymandering meant to dilute the influence of the Democratic base and rampant voter suppression, midterms and other non-presidential elections have helped Republicans build what can seem an impregnable political power base.
More coverage. More interest. Bigger turnout. As Tesfaye frames this viewpoint, low turnout—whether as a result of apathy, active interference, or both—tends to benefit Republican candidates. It certainly benefited Donald Trump, who seemed to stun his own damn self by winning the 2016 election. In elections at the state level, where turnout is more likely to be subdued (“Wait, who’s running for governor again?”), anything that could help boost the profile of a candidate—particularly in a race that’s expected to be as close as Northam vs. Gillespie was—could be a difference maker. Besides, as some might argue, if a candidate can’t survive a tough primary, he or she may not be a great candidate for the general election outright.
As Tesfaye insists, however—and as I’d be keen to agree with—this moment beckons more than the Democrats simply embracing authentic primary challenges for its nominations in 2018 and beyond. It’s about the Democratic Party embracing an authentically progressive direction now and in the future. Or as she puts it, “A blue wave is coming. Electing more moderate, poll-driven, ‘blue dog’ Democrats to ride that wave would be a grave mistake.” For a party prone to repeating its mistakes, though, there is every worry they will do just that.
In an era of escalating political expenditures, the need for organized fundraising networks is a clear and present concern. At the same time, meanwhile, it distracts us or takes away from two separate conversations we could or perhaps should be having. The first is the viability of the two-party system—I myself voted neither for Donald Trump nor Hillary Clinton in 2016. As Americans become increasingly frustrated with the direction of the two major political parties, public opinion would suggest that we should be seeing more people coming out to support the Green Party, Libertarian Party, and independent voting options. And yet, owing to their dissatisfaction, the preferred option for so many eligible voters seems to be to stay home. This, to me, is a travesty, exacerbated by the notion relief from the indifference of the Democratic and Republican Parties to change seems slow in coming, as well as the idea leading and organizing a legitimate challenge to the two-party system is a tremendous effort. It’s why Bernie Sanders has thus far eschewed invitations to run as a Green Party representative or to spearhead the creation of a “People’s Party” in favor of trying to instill reform within the Democratic Party. As admirable as the cause is, it’s a long-term project, to be sure.
The second conversation that could or should be happening goes back to the idea that started this piece: money in politics. As long as not-for-profit entities are allowed to skirt restrictions on the scope of their political activities and are not required to be more transparent about where and from whom they get their donations, and as long as many politicians and government officials allow themselves to be beholden to the whims of leaders of industry and other wealthy patrons, our system as is will be little more than a mockery of the concept of a truly representative democracy. As Sophia Tesfaye alluded to in her piece, the skewing of legislative districts along demographic lines or otherwise done so for an express political advantage—Tesfaye points to Republican gerrymandering as a deleterious force but both parties have been guilty of this practice—is part of the problem, and the precedent created by the Supreme Court’s ruling in Citizens United v. FEC which allows, under the First Amendment, for-profit organizations, not-for-profit organizations, labor unions, and other associations to make independent expenditures essentially unrestricted by the government, is also a big bone of contention for liberals and conservatives alike. When someone like Sen. Sanders is able to generate more donations than someone entrenched in big-money Washington politics like Hillary Clinton in a given month, it’s both commendable and inspiring, but heretofore, it’s the outlier more than the norm, and even then, Bernie was fighting an uphill battle against the Democratic Party establishment in the primaries.
These are significant problems that the United States of America faces, and not to blame the activists that are doing great work on the behalf of so many important issues, but the fragmented nature of their efforts doesn’t seem to help counteract the way those with more money and clout are able to afford more political influence up and down party slates in our country today. Black Lives Matter, #MeToo, those who advocate on behalf of Dreamers, Native Americans, and Mother freaking Earth—all are causes related to challenging the patriarchal hegemony of moneyed, profit-seeking whites over the working class, the poor, minorities, and every intersection therein. Accordingly, the solution is a complex one, but to be sure, it involves a concerted effort on the part of the everyday Americans, including direct involvement in the political process, even from those who would appear to lack the interest in politics or don’t see themselves as the political “type.” Thus, whether you believe that “love trumps hate” or merely that true grassroots organizing and fundraising can overcome the cash that wealthy executives can throw endlessly at political races, and even in the face of despair that individuals like Donald Trump are running amok in Washington, we must act and stand together. The Koch Brothers are all in for 2018. What are you doing to do about it?