Responding to targeted and persistent online fundraising appeals, donors from across the country poured millions into the candidates’ coffers, a phenomenon not unique to Georgia as donors try to influence which party controls Congress, according to Ian Vandewalker of the Brennan Center for Justice’s Democracy Program.
Yet, as stunning as the sums raised by the individual candidates are, those contributions are only part of the cavalcade of cash that poured into Georgia. According to calculations by the Center for Responsive Politics, “outside spending” — expenditures made independently of the candidates but spent to support or oppose one of them — totaled another $430 million. When added to candidate spending, this figure means the Georgia runoffs were a nearly $1 billion proposition.
While campaign cash has long fueled elections — the California Democratic power broker Jesse Unruh is credited with calling money “the mother’s milk of politics” — outside money, spent independently of candidates, began to take on an outsize role only 40 years ago. The result has been more ideological parties, incessant fundraising, an explosion of campaign spending and less functional governance.
The concept of the political action committee dates to the 1940s. Ironically, however, the number of PACs grew only modestly until the early 1970s when Congress, prompted by the exposure of political money scandals linked to Watergate, placed limits on campaign contributions and spending. Those efforts were dealt a major blow by a 1976 Supreme Court ruling — Buckley v. Valeo — in which the court held that government restrictions on independent expenditures were an unconstitutional infringement of free speech.
A brash, aggressive group of young New Right activists pounced on the opportunity created by Buckley and began to raise and spend unlimited amounts of money. By 1980, using a sophisticated, targeted direct mail fundraising strategy the National Conservative Political Action Committee (NCPAC) had raised millions to target a handful of incumbent Senate Democrats. NCPAC’s success with independent expenditure campaigns, deployed in the form of angry, grievance-driven attack ads — branding targets “traitors to their country” or “baby killers” — surprised even its founders, who were refreshingly candid in acknowledging the risks involved with such efforts.
“Groups like ours are potentially very dangerous to the political process,” John T. “Terry” Dolan, a NCPAC founder, said in an interview. “Ten independent expenditure groups, for example, could amass this great amount of money and defeat the point of accountability in politics. We could say whatever we want about an opponent of a Senator Smith and the senator wouldn’t have to say anything. A group like ours could lie through its teeth and the candidate it helps stays clean.”
Other NCPAC founders included Charles Black, still a top Washington lobbyist, and Roger Stone, the self-described political “dirty trickster” and Trump confidant convicted of impeding the investigation into Russian election interference (though Trump commuted his sentence).
Dolan, glib, quotable and telegenic, became the public face of NCPAC, while Sen. Jesse Helms (R-N.C.) and direct mail guru Richard Viguerie provided the group conservative credibility and access to other activists in the New Right.
Dolan wasn’t shy about describing his objectives. He intended to purge the party of moderate Republicans and take over its messaging. Washington Post reporter Myra MacPherson noted the extremism of Dolan’s beliefs in a profile. After slashing the federal budget, he proposed, government should spend “99 percent for Defense — keep America strong — and 1 percent on delivering the mail. That’s it. Leave us alone.”
NCPAC’s relentless attacks on Democrats were fundamental to the group’s strategy, but so was identifying, recruiting, training and financially supporting very conservative Republicans. A younger generation of New Right partisans — Idaho’s Steve Symms, Iowa’s Charles E. Grassley and Indiana’s Dan Quayle received NCPAC support in 1980 — helped advance Dolan’s goal of purging the GOP of moderates and moving the party sharply to the right.
One of the Democrats under assault from NCPAC in 1980 was Sen. Birch Bayh (D-Ind.), an accomplished legislator, author of two constitutional amendments and architect of Title IX, which expanded higher education opportunities, including athletics, for women. Bayh complained that it was virtually impossible to engage Indiana voters on his record or his priorities when his character was under sustained attack not only from his Republican opponent Quayle but also from an unaccountable out-of-state committee.
“Our campaign was a negative campaign,” an NCPAC operative later admitted about the group’s independent expenditures. “The purpose was to lower Birch Bayh’s voter approval rating, to make him vulnerable.” The attacks — South Dakota’s George McGovern, another victim, said they were successful because “they created so much suspicion and resentment” — ranged from criticism that the incumbent’s support for the Panama Canal treaties represented a threat to national security, to full-throated lies about positions on abortion. Bayh, McGovern, John Culver of Iowa and Frank Church of Idaho, all NCPAC targets, lost in 1980.
Many of NCPAC’s contributors were retirees, but there were also lawyers, doctors, housewives and corporate executives. Don M. Flynn, an oil executive and former all-American football player from Tulsa, gave $5,700. Gene Autry, the cowboy singer and owner of the then-California Angels baseball team, contributed $2,000. Arla Avery McMillan, daughter of the chairman of the board of Montgomery Ward and wife of a founder of the far-right John Birch Society, wrote a check for $10,000.
The unprecedented independent fundraising and spending that began in earnest in 1980 created a new political reality in every subsequent Senate election, and the effects played out in Georgia this year. A politically connected housewife in Missouri or a business executive in Oklahoma, encouraged by partisans controlling independent expenditure campaigns, became directly involved in efforts to defeat senators in states where they did not live or vote. Moreover, their principal, and perhaps only, motivation was ideological. As independent spending on attack ads has grown exponentially, every Senate election has effectively become nationalized, a choice less about state-level issues or even the abilities of an individual senator, but rather a battle for party control of the Senate. With each passing decade, actual candidate quality and platforms have mattered less, as witnessed in 2016 and 2020 when only one senator, Susan Collins (R-Maine), won a state her party’s presidential candidate lost.
Dolan and his New Right partners had one additional aim. They intended to neuter the effectiveness of the Federal Election Commission, render ineffective limits on political spending and obscure the sources of campaign money, goals largely achieved. A typical voter seeking to trace the tangled trail of “independent” money flowing into the Georgia runoffs, including big-dollar super PAC’s, party committees and “dark money” groups that never disclose contributors, could be excused for abandoning the search in disgust.
The trail blazed by NCPAC has produced fiercely nationalized elections that cost ever-increasing amounts of money that flow in from all over America. This reality has forced candidates and senators to spend an inordinate percentage of their time fundraising and led to the marginalization of moderates in the Democratic Party and their virtual extinction in the GOP. It helps explain the constant campaign and the struggle of American governance to be functional.