Sullivan is calling for an end to outside spending. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call File Photo)
The Senate candidate warned that voters’ voices are being “drowned out” by “third-party special interest groups with unlimited spending capability,” and called on his opponent to help him bar big outside spenders from the race.
Another Democrat parroting Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid’s attacks on secret campaign spending? Actually, the Senate hopeful railing against political money was Republican Dan Sullivan of Alaska, who sought — without success — to convince incumbent Democrat Mark Begich to sign a pledge to stop the outside money flooding in.
Sullivan is one of more than half a dozen Republican congressional candidates who have made assaults on big money in politics an important campaign theme. Until now, the issue was almost exclusively a Democratic talking point.
It’s a curious twist that reflects growing voter focus on political money, which has drawn news coverage as midterm spending approaches a record $4 billion, and fresh GOP interest in populist anti-corruption messages that resonate with the tea party.
Leading the way has been none other than GOP Senate Leader Mitch McConnell, of Kentucky, who asserted that “no one in the history of American politics has ever won or lost a campaign on the subject of campaign finance reform.”
McConnell’s campaign has leveled a long list money- and ethics-related attacks against Democrat Alison Lundergan Grimes. These include her invitation to “Obama billionaire” Warren Buffett to join a campaign fundraising event via conference call; her attendance at a “luxurious fundraiser” with Democratic Senator Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts at the home of a controversial Kentucky businessman, and her alleged “sweetheart deal” to rent a campaign bus at less than market value.
“By his actions, he is recognizing that money in politics is a powerful issue to win elections,” said David Donnelly, president of Every Voice, an advocacy group with an affiliated super PAC that promotes political money limits.
Democrats have rejected these attacks and hammered on unrestricted secret GOP spending, as they did in 2010, with a special focus this time on the billionaire industrialists Charles and David Koch. In the previous midterm, voters collectively shrugged and handed the House majority to Republicans. In this election, polls suggest voters have trouble even identifying the Koch brothers.
But Republicans are now leveling their own assaults on billionaires, special interests and lobbyists. In addition to Sullivan, Republican House candidates Mark Greenberg, who’s challenging incumbent Elizabeth Esty in Connecticut’s 5th District, and Evan Jenkins, running against Rep. Nick J. Rahall II in West Virginia’s 3rd District, have called on their Democratic opponents to sign a “people’s pledge” to discourage outside spending. Not surprisingly, given the success of Democratic super PACs in these midterms, Esty, Rahall and other Democrats presented with such pledges have largely declined.
Republicans have leveled their attacks in fundraising appeals, ads and during debates. In North Carolina, Republican Thom Tillis charged in an ad that Senate Democrat Kay Hagan missed an Armed Services Committee hearing “while ISIS grew” because “she prioritized a cocktail party to benefit her campaign.”
In Iowa’s Senate contest, Republican Joni Ernst accused Democratic Rep. Bruce Braley of “being supported by [a] California billionaire extreme environmentalist who opposes the Keystone pipeline,” a reference to billionaire environmentalist Tom Steyer and his multi-million dollar super PAC, NextGen Climate Action.
The Republican-friendly super PAC American Crossroads also attacked Braley over Steyer’s high-dollar backing. In one Crossroads ad, spiced up with images of hundred-dollar bills, a narrator intones: “Bruce Braley; he’s on the side of billionaire special interests, not Iowa workers.”
Republican House hopeful Richard Tisei charged in a recent debate that 6th district incumbent Democrat Seth Moulton has “raised more money in New York City on Wall Street than he has in the congressional district.” In New York’s 18th district, Republican Nan Hayworth, who is seeking to recapture her House seat from Democrat Sean Patrick Maloney, charged that biomass executive Jim Taylor has “lined the congressman’s pockets” with at least $100,000 in bundled contributions.
Even GOP Sen. Ted Cruz, the conservative Texan who’s railed against campaign finance limits almost as vigorously as McConnell, recently proposed in his list of GOP priorities for 2015 “a lifetime ban on members of Congress becoming lobbyists” as one way to “stop the Washington corruption.”
Similarly, Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus suggested in this month in his “Principles for American Renewal” that “bureaucrats, lobbyists and out-of-touch politicians need to get out of the way, and give American workers and businesses the freedom to create jobs.”
“They know that the role of money in politics is part and parcel of why Washington isn’t working,” said Donnelly, of the GOP messaging. Donnelly’s Every Voice super PAC, and another even better-funded super PAC dubbed MayDay PAC, are spending their own unrestricted money to back candidates that support campaign restrictions, helping move the issue front and center.
It’s an open question whether attacks on big money will resonate with voters in the end. The only Republican so far to make the issue central to his campaign — Senate hopeful Jim Rubens, in New Hampshire — lost his primary bid to former Massachusetts Sen. Scott Brown, despite backing from MayDay PAC, which remains more than $1 million shy of its $12 million fundraising goal.
With few exceptions, Republicans remain as staunchly opposed as ever to campaign finance limits. Still, Republicans are developing an appetite for big money as a campaign issue. As Tillis put it in a recent fundraising appeal: “It looks like money may be the deciding factor in this campaign, just as the pundits predicted.”
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