Call it the check that has already changed the course of a presidential campaign.
Three weeks ago, Newt Gingrich was in the midst of yet another near-death experience in his quest for the White House.
The former Georgia congressman had just received a drubbing in the Iowa caucuses. He was headed for another beat-down in the New Hampshire primary. The future looked bleak.
But in fact, Gingrich’s ticket to resurrection – and a victory in South Carolina — had already been punched, courtesy of a single, $5 million contribution from by Sheldon Adelson, a longtime underwriter of Gingrich’s causes and a Las Vegas casino mogul.
Adelson’s cash went to Winning Our Future, a “super” political action committee that has no formal connection to the presidential candidate. Except that a senior adviser to Winning Our Future is Gingrich’s longtime spokesman, Rick Tyler.
The super PAC spent $3.8 million prior to last Saturday’s vote in South Carolina, most of it on TV attacks aimed at GOP establishment favorite Mitt Romney. Gingrich won by 12 points – and immediately jumped to the top of polls in Florida.
Should he win there next Tuesday, the combative former U.S. House speaker might be on his way to one of the greatest upsets in American political history.
And Adelson’s massive contribution might go down as one of the most pivotal intersections of money and power in that same history book. (Adelson’s wife has already sent Winning Our Future another $5 million.)
The question is whether this is a good thing, a bad thing, or just the new unavoidable reality of our politics today.
This week, the Center for Responsive Politics, which keeps track of the cash in federal elections, declared that spending in 2012 is nearly double what it was in 2008. Of that $44.6 million already spent, 95 percent has come from independent groups — including presidential super PACs – capable of accepting contributions of any amount.
Every GOP presidential candidate now has a shadow super PAC. Gingrich didn’t start the trend – he joined it belatedly, after Restore Our Future, the Romney-allied super PAC, cleaned his clock with non-stop TV attacks in Iowa.
All can be traced to the U.S. Supreme Court decision that declared that political spending by corporations – and unions, too – qualified as free speech that shouldn’t be fettered by federal limits.
The check that saved Gingrich was the focus of a high-altitude discussion in Atlanta on Wednesday. Specifically, on the 53rd floor of the SunTrust Plaza on Peachtree Street, in the law offices of McKenna Long & Aldridge.
The chief participants were Howard Dean, the former chairman of the Democratic National Committee, and Michael Steele, the former chairman of the Republican National Committee. Yours truly served as moderator.
“I think democracy is essentially for sale, at this point, to the highest bidder — and I think the Republican party has shown that,” said Dean. “When one guy can put in $10 million of his own money and bring the supposed nominee of the Republican party to his knees – I think that’s pretty shocking.”
Steele, not surprisingly, is more comfortable with the new world. Disclosure requirements need to be improved, he conceded. The sources of money spent by super PACs in Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina won’t have to be reported until next Tuesday – the day of the vote in Florida.
Steele characterized Democratic objections as insincere grandstanding to a suspicious public.
“While the Democrats may wail and gnash their teeth, trust me – Barack Obama will take advantage of it – reluctantly — this fall,” Steele said. The word “reluctantly” was iced with sarcasm. “They will play on this playground, because it’s the playground to play on,” Steele said.
But Dean said public suspicion was exactly the point. “If most people believe that politicians can be bought, then most people don’t believe their country works anymore,” he said.
Both men admitted that the advent of super PACs is sure to diminish the power of national parties, which have traditionally been the recipients of large cash contributions – the current federal limit is $30,800 per calendar year. But voter lists will still have to be created and maintained, and volunteers will have to be organized. So political parties — Republican and Democrat — will continue to have a meaning and purpose, they assured their audience.
But we don’t know that for sure.
Stefan Passantino, the legal expert on the panel, noted that the Gingrich super PAC had announced this week that it was branching out. No longer would it restrict itself to the broadcasting of TV attack ads. Though still not accountable to Gingrich, Winning Our Future will begin behaving like a full-blown, shadow campaign organization, lining up volunteers and voters behind the former U.S. House speaker.
If that’s the future, Steele responded, national political parties might have to consider becoming corporations – just to stay competitive, and alive. He was serious.
- By Jim Galloway, Political Insider