While all eyes were placed firmly on Tea Party electoral breakthroughs such as Rand Paul in Kentucky, other disturbing trends also developed behind the scenes of this round of elections. This was the first election since the Supreme Court decision that reversed the limits on corporate campaign donations by affirming corporate personhood. The money did certainly flow in 2010 and it served to shape the outcome of at least some of the elections. Ominous unnamed sources funded dozens of attack ads in contested races, Political Action Committee (PAC) funds flowed freely and the unions continued their failed strategy of footing the bill for the Democratic Party. The sheer scale of the spending combined with restrictive ballot access laws, served to further drown out independent candidates. Voters responded by staying home.
Money, Money, Money
Overall spending increased rapidly in 2010. The Center for Responsive Politics (CRP) reports that more than $4 billion, or the annual GDP of Mongolia, was spent on this election. The Supreme Court decision on corporate personhood seems to have had the biggest impact on outside spending. Outside spending relates to activities such as the purchases of election ads, making phone calls for candidates and other electoral activities on behalf of candidates. Spikes in outside spending normally occur during presidential years and then wane in by-elections. Until this year.
CRP tallies of outside spending show it surging in 2010 to nearly $300 million, a level equal to the heavily financed presidential election of 2008. In a reversal of 2008, Conservative concerns outspent Liberal ones by nearly two to one. Much of the Conservative money, some $32 million, was funneled through Chambers of Commerce in support of Republican candidates. Who did this spending is still unknown, as contributors evaded or delayed disclosure of their contributions.
One race that attracted serious money was the hotly contested Colorado Senate race in which Democrat Michael Bennet squeaked by Republican Ken Buck by less than 1% of the vote. Bennet spent more than $10 million on the race and received more than $1 million from a Democratic Party PAC. The outside spending was equally remarkable. Nearly $6 million was spent on advertisements opposing Bennet and another $2.4 million to support Buck. The total spending in this race amounted to around $34 million, a figure equal to the monthly GDP of Caribbean island-nation of Dominica.
Unions: The Definition of Insanity
Albert Einstein’s definition of insanity is useful when evaluating the role of unions in elections. Einstein understood insanity as “doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.” If you think of the trade unions as people, they are in serious need of mental counseling. They keep on doing the same thing, supporting the Democrats, with the same results, working people get screwed. This time, the strategy of the union leadership was to do this same thing again, but on a much grander scale.
Union leaders took advantage of the new rules by avoiding the annoying formality of setting up a separate fund for campaign donations. This year they spent directly from member’s dues. And, boy did they spend. The Service Employees International Union and the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees alone spent about $37 million in outside spending on electoral races. Union money flowed throughout the country with little affect on policy proposals – the Democrats are still firmly committed to budget cutting or in Washington-speak “restructuring entitlements.”
The folly of union electoral politics was most clearly on display in the race for Governor in New York State. Here, Democratic candidate Andrew Cuomo left the heavily union-financed Working Families Party (WFP) twisting in the wind for weeks. The WFP offered their endorsement, but Cuomo refused, thereby putting the group’s ballot line in jeopardy. Cuomo eventually relented, but forced WFP officials to sign off on his proposals to cut the state budget – including cutbacks on unionized public workers! With the WFP politically neutered, Cuomo went on an embarrassing media offensive against public employees unions targeting them for concessions. Though the WFP kept its ballot access, it sold its soul and with it the last progressive cover for the trade union’s suicidal Democratic Party insider strategy.
Things did not work out exactly as planned on Tuesday. Though big-moneyed interests did manage to shape some outcomes, the trend toward self-financed mega-rich candidates took a hit. This is not entirely negative as long as the inane notion that fueled it – that these candidates were too rich to give in to special interests – dies along with it.
The CRP reports that only 1/5 of the 58 Federal level candidates who contributed at least $500,000 to their own campaigns achieved victory. The rest faced spectacularly expensive defeats. The poster-child for this reversal was Republican Senate Candidate in Connecticut Linda McMahon. McMahon coughed up more than $46 million in profits from her wrestling empire yet still came up empty.
While self-financed narcissists were going down in flames, there were also some small signs of grassroots resistance. In New York, thousands of disaffected progressives and independents found their way to Green Party candidate Howie Hawkins. Hawkins’ vote total of more than 57,000 surpassed previous Green efforts and secured permanent ballot access for the party. Simultaneously, in Ohio, Socialist Party USA candidate for Senate Dan LaBotz captured the attention of more than 27,000 voters. Though LaBotz and the Socialists were practically starting from scratch in the state, they managed to present socialist politics in a manner that drew some amount of attention. Both Hawkins and LaBotz bucked the money trends as they ran their campaigns on the cheap and got the most out of small individual contributions.
Where is Everybody?
Despite all the money spent. Despite all the attack commercials. Despite the unrelenting reports on 24/7 political news channels, the American people still did not turn out to vote. The United States Election Project reports that the average turn out was around 41%. Heavily contested races peaked out just above 50% while other states hovered around the high 30’s. Anecdotal evidence also suggests that turnout among African-American voters was far lower than the 2008 Presidential election. Overall, for the entire country, people just stayed home.
The explanation for all this is exceedingly simple. Save the moralistic homilies about the duty of people to vote. The American people get at least one part of the problem. There are no significant choices offered at the ballot box. There is a basic agreement between the Democrats and Republicans over issues ranging from budget cuts, to free trade, to military strategy and expenditures. No amount of well-financed public relations can effectively dress up this agreement as difference. The American voters know this, so they stay home.
The next step, of course, is to build that alternative. This process is likely to take place primarily outside of the electoral arena. With the Obama Deficit Commission preparing to issue a report in December that is widely expected to propose dramatic cutbacks in public programs such as Social Security and Medicare, there will be plenty of issues to organize around. Protest politics will come back to the US. Whether this reappearance will be represented in the electoral arena remains to be seen. Certainly, thanks to the Supreme Court decision on corporations, there will be powerful interests lining up to prevent such manifestations.
BILLY WHARTON is a writer and activist whose articles have appeared in the Washington Post, the NYC Indypendent, Spectrezine and In These Times. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org