When President Obama used his radio address this past weekend to spotlight the issue of campaign finance reform and the role that outside groups are having on the election landscape, it was clearly done with some political calculation.
Democratic higher-ups have been charting out an election-focused effort to use the money spent by independent conservative groups against the candidates who are their primary recipients. Part of the plan is to simply howl at the injustice of shadowy organizations not having to reveal their bankrollers. A trio of progressive groups has already begun airing rapid response ads in districts where these independent (largely conservative) groups are active. But the main crux of the effort is to more fully expose a phenomenon that has long been evident: Tea Party candidates who have decried special interest politics are benefiting, in some case, from the generosity and ideology of these very organizations.
"It should be a wake up call to American voters around the country that they need to pay attention to who is funding these ads because these are big out-of-state entities who don't want to tell you who they are," Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee Chair Chris Van Hollen told the Huffington Post. "It is very important that the candidates on whose behalf these ads are running be forced to take responsibility... And the way you do that is you say, why is it that these out-of-state billionaires spending millions of dollars trying to elect my opponent?"
As with any election campaign, a big portion of the lift involves working the press. One day before the president used his radio address to lament the special interest "power grab, pure and simple," that was taking place in contests across the country, a senior administration official urged a small gathering of reporters to start writing on what he deemed "the most insidious power grab that we have seen in a very long time."
"Look, the Koch brothers may be Republican ideologues," said the senior official. "But they are oilmen too. You read [the New Yorker's] Jane Meyer's piece, they are talking about feeding the Tea Party rallies. They are [pushing] information about the insidious nature of the EPA [Environmental Protection Agency]. This isn't just a philosophical deal. This is special interests using the process in a way that they have never been able to use before, to try and push their agenda, to try and reverse the gains we have made here on behalf of everyday people and the country as a whole.... I think a lot of these Tea Party people would be shocked to know that the candidates they favored are now being largely propelled by the dollars of the special interests that they revile."
Even without the White House push, there has been commendable reporting on the election financing that's taken place since the Supreme Court's Citizens United ruling (which allowed for unlimited expenditures by corporate entities). Salon.com's Justin Elliot, for one, has dug into FEC files to reveal that American Crossroads, the group backed by Karl Rove, has been almost exclusive funded by billionaire, oil-interest donors. The non-partisan good government group Sunlight Foundation, likewise, released a study showing that only 32 percent of the independent groups spending on the 2010 elections are disclosing donor names, compared to the 98 percent who did so in 2004.
But, by and large, candidates running for office say that the story of how much influence outside groups are having on the election process remains untold -- largely to the Democratic Party's disadvantage. An official on Sen. Michael Bennet's (D-Colo.) campaign relayed that at least four non-party groups are currently running ads against the incumbent Democrat. Those include Club for Growth, the Chamber of Commerce, American Crossroads and its offshoot, Crossroads GPS.
"Ken Buck, the Republican nominee says I'm not going to run negative ads," added the senior administration official. "I don't know why he would. There are four organizations running ads for him right now."
There is, of course, a second side to the push by Democratic higher-ups to make shadow independent organizations a problem for those candidates they are ostensibly trying to help. The Supreme Court didn't discriminate by ideology when it offered its Citizens United ruling. Progressive entities and unions don't have to disclose their donors either.
"The Citizens United decision protects the First Amendment rights of organizations across the political spectrum and is a positive for the political process and free enterprise," the Chamber's Executive Vice President for Government Affairs Bruce Josten said following Obama's radio address.
Indeed, the Democratic-funded organization Common Sense Ten has been running ads in Missouri targeting Senate candidate Roy Blunt (R-Mo). Asked whether such activity fell outside the administration's rubric for acceptable electioneering, the senior official stressed only that they would welcome transparency from any institution, Democratic or Republican.
"They should disclose," said the official. "My position is that we are for disclosure."
UPDATE: Nancy M. Pfotenhauer, a spokesperson for Koch Industries, offered the following response to the Democratic onslaught.
Koch Industries is an American company led by citizens who exercise their freedom to speak out on issues and participate openly in our political democracy. That the White House would single out this company, which employs 50,000 American taxpayers and its leadership, for vague and partisan political attacks without making any allegation of actual wrong-doing is deeply distressing and should be of concern to all Americans. We are additionally concerned that the White House would demand transparency from behind the veil of anonymity. We would ask White House officials to go on the record with their accusations or formally retract their statements. Koch Industries pays its corporate taxes and fully complies with all tax laws.