PROVIDENCE, R.I. — Democrats have a fever, and the only prescription is more super PACs.
At a Friday afternoon panel discussion at the annual Netroots Nation conference of progressive activists, a trio of Democratic senators railed against the influence of the super PACs in the wake of the Supreme Court’s January 2010 Citizens United ruling.
“Totally bogus,” was how Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.) described the argument that the groups, formally known as independent expenditure-only committees, can function independently from candidates’ campaigns. He called it “un-American” for billionaires to be able to make unlimited contributions to the groups.
“Embarrassing” was how Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.) described the amount of time members of Congress must now spend on the fundraising circuit.
And Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) argued that GOP super PAC funders “get tax cuts; they get weaker environmental laws; they get anti-labor laws” in return for their donations.
The solution to the super PAC dilemma? In part, rely on those very same types of groups in order to level the playing field in November.
“We have to fight fire with fire,” argued Becky Bond, president of the CREDO super PAC, a group seeking to oust 10 tea-party-backed House members this cycle.
Speaking on the same panel as the three Democratic senators, Bond contended that “this is just a crucial, crucial election, and [Republicans] are going to be fighting on all fronts, so we need to be fighting on all fronts, too.”
In the wake of Democrats’ loss in Wisconsin, opinions among activists at this week’s Netroots Nation conference when it comes to super PAC spending have been mixed.
Some attendees at a panel earlier Friday on the Wisconsin race argued that Democrats should have drawn a clearer contrast with Republicans when it came to outside spending in the recall, and that Democratic nominee Tom Barrett should have told Democratic-leaning outside groups to stay out of the race. Others agreed with Bond that Democrats need to “fight fire with fire.”
None of the three senators who spoke at Friday’s campaign finance panel contended that Democrats should abstain from relying on super PACs, even as they and party leaders have sought to make the influence of the groups a central issue in the 2012 campaign.
In an interview after the panel discussion, Brown — who faces a competitive reelection bid this year and has been aided by a Democratic-leaning super PAC, Majority PAC — dismissed the notion that most Democratic and GOP super PACs are competing on the same footing.
“We’re not doing the same thing; there’s no equivalency here,” he said. Of the efforts of groups such as CREDO, he added: “These super PACs – they don’t expect to compete dollar-for-dollar. These super PACs are grassroots-based. The other super PACs are, you know, one-, two-, five-billionaire based. There’s no comparison of the Koch brothers against a bunch of people who care about their country and are not going to materially benefit.”
What about groups such as Majority PAC, which has been the beneficiary of fundraising efforts by Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.), Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) and other top party leaders?
“Well, Majority PAC, I think we’ve got to fight back every way we can,” Brown said. “The president needs to fight back. When these people – you know, you can’t have a one-way fight here, which is what these people have created with their billions of dollars. ... The Republicans, when they win these fights, they get richer as a result. When Democrats win these, they don’t get wealthier. There’s more Republican billionaires to start with; of course there’s more incentive for them to give.”
Bond, whose group touts a total of more than 51,000 small-dollar contributions, was somewhat more blunt when making the case against Republicans.
“They’re getting ready to kick our ass again and we’re not going to let them do it,” she said, urging attendees to contribute to CREDO as well as groups such as the AFL-CIO’s “Workers’ Voice” super PAC.
Also speaking on Friday’s pane, which was attended by about 400 activists and moderated by former congressman Tom Perriello, was campaign-finance lawyer Trevor Potter, the Campaign Legal Center president who is best known as the attorney who has helped comedian Stephen Colbert set up his own super PAC.
Potter said the Citizens United ruling “woke everybody up” and called it “a spectacularly wrong decision, contravening 100 years of American history” in terms of regulating outside expenditures in politics.
When it comes to the future of campaign finance, Potter mused that the next Supreme Court vacancy could prove to be a pivotal moment.
“My own sense is that, historically in this country, with probably the single exception of the Civil War era and slavery, the Supreme Court has ultimately followed where the country has gone,” he said. “When they’ve made a mistake, they have reversed it themselves when they sense they are completely out of tune. And if it isn’t those five justices, it’s their successors. And you will have, over time, successors. So I have some optimism that if the country continues to think Citizens United was something wrong, that future courts will find a way to recognize it” as such.
What about pacts against outside spending such as the one signed by Massachusetts Senate contenders Scott Brown and Elizabeth Warren?
“It’s a really interesting model. We’ll wait and see if it works, because they can’t really control the outside spending,” he said in an interview after the event.