If you're visiting a candidate this summer and looking for a thoughtful house gift, might we suggest a nice super PAC? Thanks to the Supreme Court and Citizens United, they're all the rage among the mega-wealthy. All it takes is a little paperwork and a wad of cash and presto, you can have, as The Washington Post describes it, a "highly customized, highly personalized political action committee."
It's easy -- super PACs come in all amounts and party affiliations. You don't have to spend millions, although a gift that size certainly won't be turned aside. Cable TV tycoon Marc Nathanson got a super PAC for his friend, longtime Democratic Congressman Howard Berman from California, and all it cost was $100,000. Down in North Carolina, Republican congressional candidate George Holding received a handsome super PAC that includes $100,000 each from an aunt and uncle and a quarter of a million from a bunch of his cousins. Yes, nothing says family like a great big, homemade batch of campaign contributions.
You can start a super PAC on your own or contribute to one that already exists. Super PACs are available for every kind of race -- presidential, congressional or statewide. But there are other ways you can help buy an election. Look at the Wisconsin recall campaign of Republican Governor Scott Walker. At least 14 billionaires rushed to the support of the corporate right's favorite union basher. He outraised his Democratic opponent, Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett, by nearly eight to one. Most of his money came from out-of-state. More than $60 million was spent, $45 million of it for Walker alone.
Here are just a few of the satisfied buyers:
Wisconsin billionaire Diane Hendricks contributed more than half a million dollars on Scott Walker's behalf. Her late husband built ABC Supply, America's largest wholesale distributor of roofing, windows and siding. Fearful the United States might become "a socialistic ideological nation," she's an ardent foe of unions and, in her words, "taxing job creators." True to her aversion to taxes, she paid none in 2010, despite being worth, according to Forbes magazine, about $2.8 billion.
Before he launched his crusade against the collective bargaining rights of working people, Governor Walker had a conversation with Diane Hendricks, in which she asked, "Any chance we'll ever get to be a completely red state and work on these unions... and become a right to work [state]? What can we do to help you?"
Walker replied, "We're going to start in a couple weeks with our budget adjustment bill. The first step is, we're going to deal with collective bargaining for all public employee unions, because you use divide and conquer."
And so he did.
Walker also hauled in checks for nearly half a million from the Texas oligarch Bob Perry. He made his fortune in the home building business and is best known nationally for contributing four and a half million to the Swift Boat campaign that smeared the Vietnam War record of Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry back in 2004.
In Texas, Bob Perry is known for his cozy relationship with the state's Supreme Court. He once gave money to every one of its nine elected judges. And guess what? Those same nine judges later overturned an $800,000 judgment against his building company for faulty construction. Bob the Builder, who's naturally eager for help in the cause of tort reform -- that is, making it hard for everyday people to sue corporations like his for malfeasance -- has so far given four million to the pro-Romney super PAC, Restore Our Future, and millions to Karl Rove's American Crossroads super PAC.
Then there's casino king Sheldon Adelson, who gave Scott Walker's cause $250,000. That's a drop in the old champagne bucket compared to the $21 million Adelson's family gave to the super PAC that kept Newt Gingrich in the race long after the formaldehyde had been ordered. According to The Wall Street Journal, Adelson did not long mourn Gingrich's passing, and has now given at least $10 million to the Restore Our Future super PAC supporting Romney. By all accounts, what he expects in return is that his candidate hold unions at bay and swear that Israel can do no wrong.
Next up on Scott Walker's list of beneficent plutocrats: Rich DeVos, owner of the Orlando Magic basketball team and co-founder of the home products giant Amway, which, thanks to Republican leaders in Congress, once shared in a $19 million tax break after a million-dollar DeVos contribution to the Republican Party. He's a long-time member of the secretive Council for National Policy, a who's who of right-wing luminaries.
Let's not forget cowboy billionaire and born again Christian, Foster Friess, Rick Santorum's moneyman, who told us about the good ol' days when women would "use Bayer aspirin for contraceptives. The gals put it between their knees and it wasn't that costly." And Louis Moore Bacon, the billionaire founder of the hedge fund Moore Capital -- which in 2010 was fined $25 million for attempted commodities manipulation. A big backer of Romney, he, too came to Walker's aid in Wisconsin.
So did Dallas oil and gas wildcatter Trevor Rees-Jones, who's given millions to Karl Rove's American Crossroads, in anticipation of another administration as friendly to taxpayer subsidies for big oil as the Rove-Bush White House. Last year, Rees-Jones' company, Chief Oil, and a partner sold to Chevron nearly a quarter million acres in northeast America's Marcellus Shale -- the epicenter of the raging controversy over fracking. Estimated price: one billion dollars.
We could go on and name more, but you get the picture. These are the people who are helping to fund what the journalist Joe Hagan describes as a "tsunami of slime." Even as they and their chosen candidates are afforded respectability in the value-free world of plutocracy, they can hide the fingerprints they leave on the bleeding corpse of democracy in part because each super PAC comes with that extra special something every politician craves: plausible deniability. When one of their ads says something nasty and deceitful about an opponent -- when it slanders and lies -- the pol can shrug and say: "Not my doing. It's the super PAC that's slinging the mud, not me."
And that's how the wealthy 1 percent does its dirty business. They are, by the way, as we were reminded by CNN's Charles Riley in his report, "Can 46 Rich Dudes Buy an Election?" almost all men, mostly white, "and so far, the vast majority of their contributions have been made to conservative groups." They want to own this election. So if there are any of you left out there with millions to burn, better buy your candidate now, while supplies last.
Watch Bill Moyers deliver a broadcast version of this essay on this weekend's Moyers & Company.