Roll Call: Latest News on Capitol Hill, Congress, Politics and Elections
August 30, 2015

John Thune Doesn’t Like Super PACs

Sen. John Thune, R-S.D., said Wednesday that he is no fan of outside political groups but accepts them as the current reality of the system.

The No. 3 Republican in the Senate, in an interview with the editorial board of the Argus Leader, said he believes every state race is becoming national in the era of super PACs and that the GOP would be best served by putting up a unified front.

“I think it’s natural for me as a Republican senator that’s not up for election in 2014 to be thinking about how do we best maximize the opportunity we have in front of us to succeed in November 2014,” Thune said in the interview. “As always, that works better if you’re unified.

“There’s so much outside attention now in these races, and a lot of resources invested, which in my view’s not a good thing,” Thune continued. “I mean I think that where we are today with all the, the super PACs … you can do things the old-fashioned way, raise money, you know, from your constituents and people who want to help you — and then all of a sudden in January of next year, have somebody who doesn’t like you say that I want to spend a million or two million dollars against you so I’m going to fund a super PAC. … To me that’s just not a very healthy thing in our political process.”

The context for the questions was based on recent concerns from tea party groups that Rep. Kristi Noem, R-S.D., is not conservative enough for the state, leading to growing anxiety that discord among the GOP could open the door for a Democratic candidate to win.

This is not the first time a top Republican has lamented the lack of party control in the wake of the 2012 electoral cycle, when outside groups spent millions of dollars and influenced races in ways that frustrated national establishment Republicans.

In September 2012, CQ Roll Call broke the story that John Cornyn, then-chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, was open to campaign finance changes based on his experience at the helm of the campaign arm and the struggles the establishment groups had competing with the outside ones.

Cornyn told us then:

“The First Amendment is a fundamental value in this country, and the Supreme Court said as a constitutional matter, you can’t suppress free speech. And we knew all along that McCain-Feingold carved out for organized labor and other groups, so it was really a lopsided deal in the first place,” he said when asked if recent court decisions, such as Citizens United, which prohibits the government from restricting independent political expenditures by corporations and unions, have made the system worse.

“It makes it impossible for the candidates or the political parties, for that matter, to control their message because you have so many different people – I mean, if you look at these campaigns, how many different groups are funding those races? And they can’t coordinate with the candidates or the party,” Cornyn said. “It’s this cacophony of just noise. So I think there’s a lot we could do to make this a lot simpler, if we would, but the whole idea of trying, in McCain-Feingold, to limit the flow of money into politics, has been an abject failure. The only thing that’s happened is that it’s become a lot less transparent.”

It’s becoming more common — although still relatively rare — for Republicans to express concerns about the role of super PACs. The likelihood that the party would change its position anytime soon on this issue is rarer still, given that leaders such as Mitch McConnell of Kentucky are for unlimited spending as an expression of the First Amendment. Yet it’s notable that such murmurs are starting in the spring of 2013.

In his interview Wednesday, Thune also noted that Republican infighting had hurt the party in South Dakota before.

“Yes, I’m interested in unity, but I also understand it’s a free country. This is a democracy and we don’t have any godfathers in South Dakota, and people — if they want to run for office, that’s their prerogative,” Thune said, before dismissing the idea that Noem might be “too liberal” for his home state. “There are groups across the political spectrum that are engaged … in this process and sometimes very vocally.

“Almost every — every competitive Senate race becomes a national race. There’s a lot of outside interests, a lot of outside groups and D.C.-based groups and national groups that want to weigh in … and help us decide for ourselves,” Thune said.

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