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The election campaigners we can't see

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By David Axelrod
Thursday, September 23, 2010

All of Washington is in a frenzy, speculating about the outcome of the fall elections. Yet the development that could most tip the scales is getting far too little public attention. That hidden factor is the audacious stealth campaign being mounted by powerful corporate special interests that are vying to put their Republican allies in control of Congress and turn back common-sense reforms that strengthen America's middle class.

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In Senate and House races across the country, industry-fueled front groups such as "Americans for Job Security" have spent tens of millions of dollars on negative ads as misleading as their benign-sounding names -- aimed almost entirely at Democratic candidates. These floodgates were opened by a January Supreme Court ruling that upset long-standing precedent by giving U.S. corporations an unfettered right to spend and influence our elections. Now, for the first time, Wall Street, the insurance lobby, oil companies and other special interests can fill our airwaves, mailboxes and phone lines right up until Election Day. And by funneling their money through not-for-profit social welfare and trade groups, they can do it without publicly acknowledging their participation.

Legislation to close this loophole and force the groups to publicly identify their chief donors on their ads has been blocked by a Republican minority in the Senate that's determined to reap this political windfall of special-interest support while keeping the American people in the dark. The Senate is scheduled to try again before the fall recess to break this logjam, possibly as soon as today, so Americans can learn who is behind these stealth campaigns.

In races that will determine control of the House and Senate, these stealth front groups, virtually all of them run by seasoned Republican operatives, could eclipse the spending of political parties and the candidates themselves.

Exactly who is behind these groups? They won't say. Their corporate donors know that if they revealed their sponsorship, these misleading negative ads would lose all credibility. But here's what we know from published reports:

One of these groups, the newly established Crossroads GPS, is spearheaded by President George W. Bush's former chief strategist, Karl Rove, and secretly bankrolled by major Republican donors. This group and its partner, American Crossroads, have raised $32 million to run negative ads against Democrats; they promise to spend $50 million by November.

Americans for Job Security, another major player in this special-interest campaign, reportedly was founded with support from the American Insurance Association to advance that industry's agenda.

Yet another group, Americans for Prosperity, is funded by billionaire oil men, David and Charles Koch, to promote Republican candidates who support their right-wing agenda and corporate interests. The group has gone to great lengths to conceal information about its donors and their motives, but the New Yorker magazine recently revealed that this group has been quietly guiding the organizing efforts of the Tea Party -- in other words, billionaire oilmen secretly underwriting what the public has been told is a grass-roots movement for change in Washington.

The ferocity of their efforts is a testament to the battles the Obama administration has fought against special interests on behalf of the American people.

Over the past 20 months, we've eliminated tens of billions of dollars in unwarranted subsidies to bank middlemen to make college more affordable for millions of students. We've beaten back a furious lobbying campaign from Wall Street to protect people with credit cards and mortgages from hidden fees and penalties. We've taken on the health insurance lobby to protect Americans with preexisting conditions from being denied needed coverage. We've closed egregious loopholes that allow corporations to get tax breaks for tax shelters they've set up overseas.

And now the empire is striking back. The Republicans have offered an agenda that would reverse many of these gains and put special interests back in the driver's seat.

Prohibitions against rampant corporate spending in our elections were championed by Theodore Roosevelt. They were written in reaction to the untrammeled political power of the "robber barons," who used their money to bend the national agenda to their interests, and were strengthened after the Watergate scandal, which involved secret campaign spending by corporations. By reversing long-established safeguards, the Supreme Court has turned back the clock.

There is still time for the media to shine a light on these front groups. There is still time for an aroused public to rise up against this ominous special-interest hijacking of our elections. There is still time for candidates on both sides of the aisle to take the side of average Americans and challenge these groups to disclose their secret funders. And there is time for Republicans to stop blocking a law that would require these groups to disclose who is influencing our elections.

Pundits will spend a lot of time predicting who will win in November. But more is at stake than the fate of Democrats or Republicans. What's at stake is whether the powerful corporate special interests will go back to writing our laws or whether our democracy will remain where it belongs -- in the hands of the American people.

The writer is a senior adviser to President Obama.


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