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Americans hate super PACs. But will they vote against them?

at 11:09 AM ET, 04/25/2012

President Obama tried his best to run a campaign against the influence of super PACs, and he came up short.

But there is some evidence that such a strategy may work on the state level.
Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah), serving in his sixth term on Capitol Hill, successfully ran against a super PAC at last weekend’s state GOP convention. But can other senators emulate that strategy? (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite, File)

Look no further than the Utah Republican Party convention over the weekend. Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) took a strong majority of the vote and nearly avoided having to go to a June primary with his opponent — a good showing considering the position Hatch was in last year — and he did it in large part by running against outsiders who had come to Utah to unseat him.

By the end of the campaign, polling showed that 62 percent of convention delegates had an unfavorable opinion of FreedomWorks, the main conservative group seeking to unseat Hatch, and 39 percent said their feelings were “very unfavorable” toward the group. The group, which played a major role in unseating Sen. Robert Bennett (R-Utah) at the 2010 convention, had become a pariah and, undoubtedly, something of a boon to Hatch. One local columnist even suggested the group’s name was a “dirty word” in the Beehive State.

The Salt Lake Tribune’s Paul Rolly wrote that “when the name FreedomWorks was brought up in recent weeks during focus groups consisting of GOP delegates, the response was chilling. One focus group leader said it was like someone had just spouted a vile obscenity.”

A new poll from the Brennan Center for Justice at the New York University School of Law shows how that kind of backlash can germinate.

In the poll, conducted by Opinion Research, 69 percent of respondents said new rules allowing donors to give unlimited amounts of money to super PACs will result in corruption, and 77 percent said members of Congress will be more likely to act in the interest of a group that spent millions trying to elect them rather than act in the public interest.

In other words: Americans hate super PACs. Or, at the least, they are exceedingly suspicious of them.

But the data reinforce something that has characterized the American electorate for centuries: a healthy skepticism of the powerful. It just so happens that when groups can flood even more money into campaigns, they become even more powerful. And the poll suggests people are adjusting their skepticism accordingly.

But it’s one thing for a campaign to turn a convention of 4,000 delegates against an outside group; it’s another thing entirely to make it work among a wider electorate that will be much less involved or savvy and may not even know what a super PAC is.

That’s the challenge confronting Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.) and other Democrats who would like to turn the super PAC influence against Republicans (knowing that Democratic super PACs are unlikely to spend nearly as much.)

McCaskill, in particular, has made a concerted effort from the start of her campaign to run against super PACs, which have already run $3 million worth of ads against her.

But it’s a steep hill to climb, as the Post’s Roz Helderman wrote this weekend:

Standard practice suggests that voters are rarely interested in arguments over campaign finances, particularly in the face of a tough economy and a political system awash in money on both sides. But McCaskill is betting she can turn the millions spent against her into an advantage, a sign of her political independence. She devoted her first campaign ad for reelection to the argument that out-of-state special interests are trying to knock her out of the Senate in November.

The Brennan Center poll suggests that smart use of the issue can reap some benefits.

The question, though, is how much.

It’s a pretty easy call for Americans to suggest that powerful outside groups lead to corruption; it’s another matter for that belief to get them to swing their vote to the other side based on the actions of one group.

Obama failed in his effort to run against super PACs because he was simply going to face to much money if he didn’t embrace the newfangled (!) campaign finance tool.

And in Utah, it wasn’t just distaste for FreedomWorks that helped Hatch. It was also a successful campaign that rehabilitated his image as a conservative, combined with an opponent who wasn’t quite top-tier.

Keep an eye on McCaskill’s fate to see whether the issue has legs in other parts of the country. And if McCaskill starts polling better, we may see other candidates start adopting the strategy.

 
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