POLITICS
04/12/2010 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Citizens United Ruling A Windfall For Consultants, TV Stations

After President Obama upbraided the Supreme Court during his State of the Union address, Justice Sam Alito, whose swing vote overturned a century of precedent and legalized unlimited corporate involvement in campaigns, broke again with tradition to mouth "not true," breaking the unspoken rule that the justices are to be seen and not heard from during the address.

CNN's political analysts - "The Best Political Team on Television" - took up the exchange after the speech.

GOP consultant Alex Castellanos, who doubles as a CNN contributor, rushed to Alito's defense.

And why shouldn't he? Alito is going to make Castellanos, already a very rich man, a very, very rich man. Castellanos' political shop, National Media Inc., is one of the largest conservative ad-buying operations (and has even done work with Citizens United, the organization that brought the suit that brought down the law.)

"Anybody doing ad-buying in Washington is about to make an unbelievable amount of money," said one person in the industry who plans to do just that.

The Citizens United decision allows corporations to use unlimited funds for political campaigns directly from their general treasury. In other words, Exxon or Goldman Sachs could skim a few million off the top of their billions in revenue and flip a few Senate or House races. The flood of money during election time will drive up the cost of ad time to the benefit of local TV stations and ad buyers and to the detriment of candidates who will be drowned out by special interests.

The new rules make Senate seats that were once thought prohibitively expensive for second-class opponents - such as the contest for Barbara Boxer's seat in California - within reach if a corporate titan lets loose the cash and barrages a candidate with weeks of negative ads.

Drenching California's media markets in ads can cost more than $5 million a week. Castellanos didn't respond to requests for comment.

Political consultants who work as middle-men for interest groups and corporations looking to buy ad time on TV have done quite well the past few years, charging either a percentage of the total buy or a flat fee for hooking up buyer and seller.

There's big money to be made. According to the nonpartisan Campaign Media Analysis Group (CMAG), roughly $2.6 billion was spent on television ads in 2006 and another $2.8 billion in 2008.

The 2010 cycle, even before Citizens United, was looking to set records for an off-year election. More than $160 million was spent in 2009 on health care issue ads and in the middle of the year the Chamber of Commerce announced a $100 million ad campaign to combat the Consumer Financial Protection Agency.

"Money's always sort of found a way into politics. Before the Supreme Court decision, there was a revolving door that slowed its entrance. Now the door gone," said Evan Tracey, CMAG's president and founder. "Does it add exponentially to this year? Time will tell."

In the recent special election in Massachusetts, he noted, there were at least 14 outside advertisers involved on both sides.

Tracey estimated that the decision could at 20 to 30 percent more ad money to the projected totals, which would be between $500 and $750 million.

"I think certainly the big industries that have been on the frontlines on some of these bills, I think certainly they're going to get in and play a little bit. But I'm not sure they haven't been playing," said Tracey.

Will Robinson, a Democratic media consultant and strategist with the New Media Firm, said that "in some ways the windfall has already begun."

Robinson, who does both ad buying and production, noted that some $160 million was spent on health care ads in 2009 nearly $500 million was spend on issue advocacy in total.

Incumbents able to cut through the clutter with franking privileges and the ability to earn free local media through official acts will get a bit of an edge, said Dana Houle, a political operative and former DailyKos diarist.

As the windfall grows, said Robinson and Houle, a major consequence will be the cluttering up of ad space on local TVs. "Rates for everyone will start to climb," Robinson said. Already, he said, in battleground states around election time, TV stations can quadruple rates. It's basic supply and demand, he said, citing the increased demand for ad space that Citizens United will bring.

While TV stations will reap the largest benefit, prices for political advertising in newspapers and online will likely increase, too, he said, as will the attractiveness of using the mail.

"People are going to buy broadcast first, then cable," said Robinson. "Internet's more difficult to buy. What we saw with the Brown campaign is its very critical, but tough to buy." If money is seeking a way to buy space online, of course, bloggers and political websites will eventually figure out a way to accept it.

For TV stations, it couldn't come at a better time. Their traditional advertising partners -- car dealers and mortgage brokers, for instance - are taking a beating.

"In fact, this may be the lifeline for the local channels," said Robinson.