Though they tend to be butting heads in this election cycle, Republicans and good government officials can agree on one thing -- they both claim that it takes some chutzpah for the Democratic Party to insist that special interest money is overwhelming the 2010 elections.
Over the weekend, Congressional Quarterly reported that a utilities lobbyist, Brian Wolff, was hoping to raise $2.5 million for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee before the cycle was over (Wolff already had bundled $1.96 million). A former executive director at the DCCC and a longtime confidant of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Wolff's support of the party -- even from the confines of the external affairs office at the Edison Electric Institute -- wouldn't seem odd in previous elections. Reached by phone, he declined to talk about his donations. But those who know him stress that his commitment is in getting Democrats elected and advancing a progressive, rather than Edison's, agenda.
But with Democrats having spent the past month arguing that special interests -- often under the cloak of anonymity -- are trying to shepherd Republicans into office, the Wolff story presents prime bait for the GOP.
"Sadly, this is the type of hypocrisy that voters have grown used to when it comes to Democrats and their holier-than-thou attacks on lobbyists and special interests," said Ken Spain, NRCC Communications Director. "It should come as no surprise that a staunch Pelosi ally and former DCCC operative is beating down the doors of lobbyists in order to funnel millions in campaign cash so that Democrats can put more absurd ads on the air attacking Republicans as hand-maidens of the special interests."
Good government officials aren't ready to offer quite the same indictment. For starters, there is no evidence that Wolff is "beating down the doors of lobbyists" to raise his funds. The money he is planning to raise, moreover, is dwarfed by the many millions that corporate donors have apparently spent through third-party groups. Finally, lobbyist donations are prohibited at the Democratic National Committee and were outlawed by the president during his run for the White House. But that makes the funds from Wolff all the more noteworthy, good government officials say, for the confusion it's caused to the party's broader message.
"The Democrats need a message that they can be consistent about and they shouldn't undercut it," said David Donnelly, director of Campaign Money Watch. "And I think the real answer to this is that the Democrats can't just blast away at special interests, they have to do something about it. Every member of Congress is going to have to scramble for as much money as they can get and wealthy special interests are ready to write the check but just because the checks go to Democrats doesn't mean it doesn't influence them."
It is, in some respects, fairly basic reporting to place Wolff's donation in the context of the larger debate over the impact of money on the political process. The far more interesting story, will come after the election, when Democratic operative assess the benefits and damage done by running on an anti-lobbyist, anti-special interest message and ask whether the optics of having clean hands is worth the price of alienating or cutting off a major source of revenue.