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2010 Midterm Elections

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The first election season after the U.S. Supreme Court's January 2010 Citizens United decision was the most expensive in U.S. history. The decision made it permissible for corporations, unions, and trade associations to contribute unlimited amounts of money directly from their general treasuries towards influencing the outcome of political campaigns. According to the non-partisan Center for Responsive Politics, at least $3.5 billion was spent by candidates, political parties, and interest groups, with the number expected to increase to $4 billion by the time all receipts are counted.

Republicans were most successful in the post-Citizens United campaign landscape, with much of the unlimited corporate money being channeled through newly-formed political advocacy groups with innocent-sounding names like American Action Network or American Crossroads. Even groups that existed in past elections like Club for Growth were bolstered by the Supreme Court decision and were able to raise unprecedented amounts of corporate money to influence elections like never before. The Sunlight Foundation estimates that 40% of outside interest group spending was made possible by the Citizens United decision. Conservative groups spent nearly $1 billion more than liberal groups in the 2010 election cycle.

What's more, many of those groups organized under the 501(c) section of the tax code, allowing them to raise and spend these unlimited funds without disclosing their donors. The Supreme Court's 2007 FEC v. Wisconsin Right to Life decision allows 501(c) groups to run "issue-oriented" political ads (ostensibly attacking a candidate's position on an issue, but obviously telling viewers to vote against the candidate) without disclosing the identities of the individuals and corporations who fund their efforts.

Significant Secret Spending Increases

Outside special interest group spending was at least four times greater in 2010 than in the last midterm election-- spending by these secretive outside groups jumped to $294.2 million in the 2010 election cycle from just $68.9 million in the 2006 cycle.

According to a January 2011 report from Public Citizen,

  • Nearly half of the money spent ($138.5 million, or 47.1 percent) came from only 10 groups;
  • Groups that did not provide any information about their sources of money collectively spent $135.6 million - 46.1 percent of the total spent by outside groups during the election cycle;
  • Two “Crossroads” groups formed by Republican strategist Karl Rove combined to spend $38.2 million, more than any single group. Next was the U.S. Chamber of Commerce at $31.2 million; and
  • Of 75 congressional contests in which partisan power changed hands, spending by outside groups favored the winning candidate in 60 contests.

While Americans still have only limited information about where these outside groups received their funding, they had even less information before they cast their vote in November. As of October 2010, only two of the top ten spending interest groups had disclosed any information about their funders (according to another Public Citizen report. What's more, of the $70.7 million of donations that had been disclosed through October 21, 2010, 0.12% of the individuals donating were responsible for 66.8% of the reported contributions.

Fred Wertheimer of Democracy 21, a nonpartisan campaign-finance-reform group, tells TIME Magazine that "shadow Republican groups formed by longtime party officials and party operatives are raising and spending hundreds of millions of dollars in this election. . . most of which is going to come in the form of secret undisclosed contributions." (Fred Wertheimer is the attorney who helped expose the illegal corporate campaign contributions funding the Nixon campaign).

According to the Washington Post, "one reason Democrats have benefited less from interest-group spending may be the party's - and President Obama's - message against the role of moneyed interests in Washington. And in his 2008 campaign, Obama discouraged such independent interest groups on the left from forming." Another reason, of course, is that large corporations tend to sponsor Republicans because the GOP is more likely to favor corporate shareholder's interests.

Coordinated, Independent Efforts

Many of the pro-Republican "independent" groups are not independent at all-- instead, they operate in a tightly coordinated and interconnected manner. For example, American Action Network and American Crossroads share office space, Republican Governor Association (RGA) chair Haley Barbour is an advisor to the American Action Network, American Action Network Chair Fred Malek is a top RGA fundraiser, and members of these groups and others regularly meet to coordinate strategy. The groups began their coordination efforts in meetings at Karl Rove’s home, and have given themselves the nickname the "Weaver Terrace group," named for the Washington street on which Rove lives. See this NPR graphic describing some of the networks.

Americans Want Disclosure and Campaign Limits!

On October 28, the New York Times reports that:

"The latest New York Times/CBS News poll found that nearly 8 in 10 Americans say it is important (including 6 in 10 who say “very important”) to limit the amount of money campaigns can spend. While majorities of each party’s registered voters agree that limits are important, Democrats (68 percent) and independents (59 percent) are more likely than Republicans (52 percent) to say it is “very” important.

Americans are even more supportive of full disclosure by campaigns with 92 percent saying it is important for campaigns to be required by law to disclose how much money they have raised, where the money came from and how it was used. There was little difference in the opinions of each party’s voters on this question."

Can't Congress do anything?

Political efforts to counteract the effects of Citizens United, like the DISCLOSE Act, have been unsuccessful thanks to united Republican opposition. The democrat-sponsored DISCLOSE Act would have required organizations involved in political campaigning to disclose the identity of large donors, and to reveal their identities in any political ads they fund. It would also have barred foreign corporations, government contractors and TARP recipients from making political expenditures. The Act passed the House, but failed to pass the Senate in September due to united Republican support. The final vote was 59 to 39, short of the 60 votes required. All Democrats voted to support the bill; two Republicans did not vote. During the election, a coalition of Democrats asked companies to pledge not to use corporate dollars on political campaigns, but few signed on.

Newly-elected Tea Party-backed candidates have vowed to block any campaign finance reform. Zach Carter theorizes they oppose efforts to crack down on secret corporate spending because the Tea Party's appeal "is based on its populist, grassroots image. If anybody knew that secret right-wing millionaires were bankrolling the entire operation, the “movement” would lose its luster."

Learn More!

For more about the groups who are trying to buy our elections with corporate dollars, please read our Special Report on Outrageous Election Spin and Misinformation, and follow the links at the end of the Report to our independent reporting on anonymous corporate campaign spending.


Also read our Sourcewatch articles in progress on groups such as American Crossroads, American Action Network, the Koch Brothers, the 60 Plus Association, Club for Growth, the Commission on Hope, Growth, and Opportunity, the Committee for Truth in Politics, and the other cleverly-named groups behind the ads, mailers, and robocalls. If you cannot find updated information about a group via the search toolbar on the left, please let us know.