Even as members of the Democratic Party milk the rise and influence of anonymous donors for all its political worth, top officials have allowed themselves a moment of hypothetical retrospection. What if the Congress had passed the DISCLOSE Act, its one major legislative push to shed light on those anonymous donors?
The legislation, which was offered in response to the Supreme Court's Citizens United decision, passed the House but fell one vote shy in the Senate. Had it been implemented over the summer, top Democrats stress, it could have drastically altered the party's sagging fortunes.
"It was certainly significant," said White House senior adviser David Axelrod. "I don't know about [it being] the most devastating legislative defeat. But it has had some profound consequences not just for the Democratic Party, but for our democracy."
Under DISCLOSE, nearly every organization that spent money on election ads would be required to personally endorse the spots and reveal who, exactly, paid for them. There would be no caps on the money these organizations could spend; simply requirements that they list major donors. The guiding notion among its authors is that Republican lawmakers who had long argued that transparency was the best campaign finance remedy would have a difficult time casting votes against a bill that provided just that. But while there were votes in the House to get it through the chamber, united GOP opposition left it one shy of a filibuster in the Senate.
"Mitch McConnell, the Republican leader, essentially told any member of his caucus that if they voted for it he'd have their head," Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee Chair Chris Van Hollen (D-MD) told reporters at a Christian Science Monitor breakfast on Thursday. "Because they understood there were a lot of these big special interests that preferred to operate in the dark."
Had one Senate moderate bucked leadership directives, and the DISCLOSE Act passed, it's uncertain how much different the current electoral landscape would look. The Chamber of Commerce, for one, would be forced to detail who was paying for their ads. As would other anonymous political groups. Whether that would change voter perceptions is unclear. In a bit of irony, Democrats have actually been making marginal gains in the polls by virtue of demonizing the secrecy of conservative donors.
But Van Hollen stressed that the party's preference was for transparency, even if candidates could use the lack of it against their Republican opponents. And he predicted that the pool of money being spent on ads would be shallower -- and the Democratic Party's fortunes a bit better -- if the donors knew their names would be publicized.
"I think you would not see as many donors," said Van Hollen. "But I want to make it clear it is not because of any effort to suppress speech but because these people want to remain secret because they don't want voters to know who they are."