Voter concern over corporate influence on elections and lawmaking was the most potent force in the closely-watched Democratic Senate primary campaign that ended Tuesday evening in Colorado with Sen. Michael Bennet holding on to fend off former statehouse Speaker Andrew Romanoff.
Romanoff, outspent by the Obama-backed Bennet, made corporate control of the political process his primary issue, swearing off political action committee money and hammering Bennet for taking corporate cash. Bennet, who was appointed last year after Ken Salazar left the seat to head the Interior Department, campaigned loudly against Washington special interests on a platform focused on curbing lobbyist influence.
Bennet charged Romanoff with hypocrisy for basing an "entire campaign" on attacking his use of PAC money, given that Romanoff himself has been taking PAC money during much of his career and even ran his own PAC until recently. His campaign has also argued that Romanoff would be a liability to the party in a general election if he refuses funding from so many of the usual sources.
Romanoff had even gone as far as to say he'd reject money from the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, a flagship party fundraising organization, because he considered it too tainted with corporate bucks. But Romanoff reversed that pledge, announcing that he would indeed seek national help should he win the nomination, and Bennet has beaten him mercilessly for flip-flopping.
It's all about as intellectually coherent as a John Boehner performance on "Meet the Press." But that's because the candidates are trying to convince voters that they are free from corporate influence while operating within a system that is quite evidently dominated by corporations.
The strategies employed by Romanoff and Bennet make perfect sense, however, in the context of a new poll done by SurveyUSA and funded by MoveOn.org, an effort to gauge how much weight voters in swing districts put on the issue of corporate influence.
SurveyUSA polled 9,600 voters in battleground states and congressional districts -- 400 each from individual districts and 600 each from four swing states -- to get their take on the influence of corporate money on the political process. Voters wanted to curb corporate influence on both elections and the legislative process, reserving the greatest ire for lobbyists, the poll finds. More than 80 percent of Coloradans, for instance, said that politicians are more influenced by lobbyists than by voters.
"The race in Colorado shows that elections will be won and lost this November on which candidate wins the trust of voters in fighting corporate corruption in Washington," said Ilyse Hogue, a top MoveOn.org official. "Most Americans believe that corporations are not people, corporate money is not free speech, and democracy works best when everyone has an equal voice."
The key question for candidates, however, is whether anger at corporate control of politics translates into votes. Politicians pay special attention to the more-likely/less-likely type of question, and on that front the survey finds that voters overwhelmingly favor politicians who pledge to curb lobbyist influence. By a margin of 62 to 9, Coloradans were more likely to support such a candidate; by 73 to 12, they were more likely to support a candidate who would vow to back a constitutional amendment to overturn the 5-to-4 Citizens United Supreme Court decision, which legalized unlimited corporate involvement in elections.
"This poll says that Michael's plan to reform Washington, which includes lobbying reform and ending unchecked corporate influence in elections, resonates with Coloradans," a Bennet spokesperson said after being shown a copy of the poll. "Taking on the Republican nominee on Citizens United alone will be effective."
The mainstream press has been trying to stuff the Bennet-Romanoff race into a simple anti-establishment box. But the two candidates' intense focus on money in politics, combined with the SurveyUSA poll, make it clear that more is at work than a simple throw-the-bums-out mentality.
Romanoff, in an interview with HuffPost Monday night, credited his anti-PAC pledge with helping raise money from individual donors. "There are a couple things going on this year to make the issue more salient," he said. Watching drugmakers help write health care reform and insurance companies kill the public option made a major impression, he said, followed by the sight of bank lobbyists weakening Wall Street reform and energy companies keeping climate change legislation from coming to a vote. "People are connecting the dots more than ever before, because it's so easy to see."
The Supreme Court, he said, brought the issue into stark relief, when the most pro-corporate bench since the Gilded Age of the 19th century -- when justices openly took cash payments from major corporations -- opened the electoral floodgates to corporate cash.
"Citizens United really put this issue on the map as far as a lot of people are concerned. They're just astonished that corporations are considered human and can spend unlimited amounts from their treasury on elections," said Romanoff.
Voters reject the Supreme Court's contention that corporate spending is protected by the First Amendment. Asked if corporate spending in elections was a "form of free speech" or "an attempt to bribe politicians," 77 percent -- including 70 percent of Republicans -- said it was a bribe. Only 19 percent agreed with Chief Justice John Roberts and the four other pro-corporate justices who reversed 100 years of law in January.
MoveOn.org is hoping to capitalize on the anti-corporate sentiment by persuading candidates and members of Congress to pledge to fight corruption with a three-plank platform: Overturn Citizens United; pass the Fair Elections Now Act, which would provide public financing for campaigns; and approve lobbying reform, which would bring transparency to the process and slow the revolving door.
David Sirota, a Denver-based radio host and progressive columnist, has not endorsed either candidate in the race but has been harshly critical of Bennet, accusing him of selling out to corporate interests.
"The single most powerful and relevant issue in the Colorado Senate Democratic primary has been the power of Big Money over Washington policy," Sirota wrote in an email. "Having become one of the top corporate fundraisers in Congress in just 17 months, and having cast a series of votes for corporate interests, Michael Bennet is seen by many voters as the walking personification of a Beltway culture that has sold Colorado out. This image has been aggressively underscored by Bennet's opponent, Andrew Romanoff, who has refused to accept PAC money and has made Bennet's cash and votes the central issue of the race."
Sirota, said Bennet aides, is a strong Romanoff backer, despite his pledge of neutrality.
Conceding that he has raised PAC money in the past, Romanoff said he won't break his vow if he wins the primary. He will, however, take DSCC money, he said, if the committee separates out PAC money -- an accounting gimmick that Romanoff has been criticized for endorsing. In any case, Romanoff said, the DSCC has told him his request was premature, since the committee is backing Bennet.
With the economy stumbling along, attacking corporate corruption is a way for politicians to strike a chord with voters. Nationally, 57 percent of voters in the SurveyUSA poll said that getting the economy going required taking on corporate lobbyists.
The poll is bad news for Democrats, who have been in power the past two years while the visibility of lobbying and dealmaking has increased. Only 18 percent of those polled believed that Democrats had made a "serious attempt to reduce the influence of special-interest money in politics." Yet 23 percent believed that Republicans had taken such a stand -- a small but significant difference, and a disconcerting finding for Democrats, given that the GOP stood in near lockstep against the recent attempt to pass campaign finance reform.
There's an additional snag in the survey data. Once the debate moves past rhetoric and closer to crafting real legislation to reduce lobbyist influence, Democrats will run up against complaints of a government overreach.
Given a choice between two statements -- "Government is too big" and "Corporate lobbyists have too much power over our elected officials" -- independents chose the former by a 55-to-42 margin. Republicans overwhelmingly agreed with independents -- by a 3-1 margin -- whereas Democratic voters answered 80 to 16 that corporate influence was the bigger problem. What appears on the surface to be a clean-cut, transpartisan issue is rooted deeply in ideological warfare. Curbing corporate influence, it seems, will have to be done without appearing to expand government control, not an easy task.
But it has to start somewhere. Romanoff said that his idea for the PAC ban came from a friend and supporter. "My friend asked, 'How is the system ever going to change if nobody changes it? Somebody's got to actually break with this pattern."
UPDATE: The White House flexed the muscle of Organizing for America (OFA) to help get the vote out for Bennet. OFA, the remnant of Obama's 2008 campaign juggernaut, made nearly 47,000 calls and knocked on nearly 14,000 doors, energizing 1,533 volunteers. Obama recorded a robo call for likely voters on behalf of Bennet, hosted three fundraisers in February and, last week, hosted a tele-town hall with Bennet.
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