Opinion: Columnists

Citizens United real impact on WI recall: zero

Politics,Beltway Confidential,Conn Carroll,Columnists

There is no doubt that conservatives' money advantage played a big part in Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker's victory last night. As someone who has walked precincts in a House race where we were outspent three-to-one, I am well aware of how a bombardment of television ads can change an election. But liberals are just dead wrong when they blame Walker's victory on the Supreme Court's Citizen United decision. The Washington Post's Greg Sargent cites the decision no less than five times in his Wisconsin write-up, including:

An analysis by the Center for Public Integrity found that Walker outraised his vanquished opponent Tom Barrett by nearly eight to one, and that outside groups supporting Walker vastly outspent unions, thanks to Citizens United.

But the Center for Public Integrity link Sargent provides proves no such thing. Yes, Barrett was outspent heavily. But virtually none of the money spent on Walker's behalf would have been illegal before Citizens United either.* Here is what CPI does report:

Tuesday’s recall election of Republican Gov. Scott Walker is the most expensive in Wisconsin history. More than $63.5 million has been spent by candidates and independent groups, the overwhelming majority underwritten by out-of-state sources.

True. But nothing in Wisconsin law outlawed out of state political spending before or after Citizens United.

Walker, meanwhile, has benefited from the state’s election finance rules that allowed his campaign to raise unlimited contributions from individuals after recall petitions were filed in November 2011. His challengers could take no more than $10,000 from individuals.

Through April, Walker’s top three donors combined gave more than challenger Barrett’s campaign had raised overall. Four of Walker’s top seven donors are out-of-state billionaires, including former AmWay CEO and former Michigan gubernatorial candidate Dick DeVos, and casino magnate Adelson, who each gave $250,000.

True. But DeVos and Adelson are individuals, not corporations. Nothing in Citizens United changed this part of Wisconsin's campaign finance law.

The Republican Governors Association has spent roughly $4 million on campaign ads through its Right Direction Wisconsin PAC since April 23. But because the RGA’s PAC is based out-of-state, it only has to disclose to state regulators its donations coming from inside Wisconsin, a glaring loophole.

Of its most recent $4 million outlay, the RGA raised only a little over $7,000 from inside the state.

The RGA does have to report donors to the IRS, and its 2012 first quarter filing reveals a $500,000 donation from the Chamber of Commerce and a $1 million February contribution from Koch.

The RGA also was perfectly free to spend as much money they wanted in state elections both before and after Citizens United. They have been advertising in governors races across the country for decades.

At no point in CPI's entire article do they cite a single example of conservative spending that would have been illegal before Citizens United, but is legal now.

UPDATE: Center for Public Integrity Communications Director Randy Barrett has written in to complain that this story is inaccurate. Specifically, he writes:

We  do, in fact, cite an example of "conservative" spending that wasn't possible before CU.

The story cites the Republican Governors Association's 1.91 group, called Right Direction Wisconsin, which spent roughly $9 million on this race.

None of this spending would have been legal before 2010.

See this link for RGA's reported spending in the recall, expressly for Walker, and expressly against Falk and then Barrett. Again, none of this was legal before Citizens United:


But if you follow Barrett's link, all it shows is that the RGA changed the way they reported the money they spent this year. It does not show, in any way, that the actual ads they ran would have been illegal before Citizens United. Reminded of the fact that the RGA has been spending money on ads in Wisconsin for decades, Barnett responds:

Yes, RGA has been spending money for decades, but not on “express advocacy.” That type of third-party pending was illegal before Citizens United.

Go ask the Wisconsin Government Accountability Board, the state agency that handles campaign finance filings.

Before Citizens United, RGA would not have been not allowed to spend the $9m they spent this election to EXPRESSLY ADVOCATE for or against a candidate.

Below are some of the actual ads the RGA ran in Wisconsin. Here is the legal test for "express advocacy" as defined by the FEC:

The Court's landmark Buckley v. Valeo decision listed examples of phrases that constitute express advocacy: "vote for," "elect," "support," "cast your ballot for," "vote against," "defeat," "reject."

As you can see, at no point do they explicitly ask voters to vote for Walker or against Barrett. They are just as legal now as they were before Citizens United.

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