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Monday, Jan. 30, 2017

Money in Politics

‘Citizens United’ decision plays key role

The U.S. Supreme Court’s controversial “Citizens United” decision in 2010 changed the landscape of political spending on elections. It threw out restrictions on spending by independent groups and allowed the creation of Super PACs or so-called Outside Groups. The court’s 5-4 decision basically said that it was OK for corporations and labor unions to spend as much money as they want to convince people to vote for or against a candidate.

The decision did not affect contributions to the candidate. There are still limitations on the amount of money that can be given directly to a candidate’s personal campaign committee. And supposedly, there is no communication or cooperation between the candidate and Super PACs, but not everyone is convinced of that. One thing is for sure – the “Citizens United” decision definitely increased the amount of money spent on elections.

In the recent presidential race, socalled Super PACs raised $205.9 million for Democrat Hillary Clinton and $74.9 million for Republican Donald Trump. The Center for Responsive Politics estimates that spending for the Clinton- Trump race topped more than $2.65 billion. That was down a bit from the spending in 2012 when Democratic incumbent President Barack Obama defeated Republican challenger Mitt Romney. The price tag for that race was $2.76 billion.

The 2012 race was the first presidential race affected by the “Citizens United” decision. A total of $609.4 million was spent on the race by Super PACs. Super PACs affiliated with Obama spent $394 million, and those with Romney spent $186 million. The money spent could be on behalf of a candidate or against an opposing candidate.

The impact of the “Citizens United” decision is being felt at the state and local level as well. Take the 2014 Louisiana Senate race, for example. Incumbent Democratic U.S. Sen. Mary Landrieu spent $20 million on the race, and challenger Republican Bill Cassidy spent $14.8 million. But Outside Groups or Super PACs threw in another $24.5 million. Ads against Landrieu totaled $12.5 million and against Cassidy $8.5 million.

Let’s take a look at the recent elections.

In the U.S. Senate race, Republican John Kennedy spent a tad more than $5 million. Democrat Foster Campbell spent $6.4 million in a losing cause. Kennedy won the race 61-39 percent. Campbell also put $750,000 of his own money into the race, but has paid back $500,000 of those loans. He has a debt of $293,471.

Super PACS played a role in this election as well. A total of $1.6 million was spent on Kennedy – $864,000 supporting him and $733,000 opposing him. A whopping $1.2 million was spent opposing Campbell, while $395,000 was spent supporting him. (The numbers are rounded off for clarity.) These two candidates were in the runoff, so the numbers include the primary and the runoff elections.

But there are other Senate candidates who did not make the runoff, but spent quite a bit of money on the race. Former U.S. Rep. Charles Boustany spent $5.9 million and got 15 percent of the vote. Former U.S. Rep. John Fleming spent $4.8 million and received 11 percent. But what is interesting here is that $1.1 million in outside money was spent opposing Boustany and $1 million opposing Fleming. That money came mostly from the Super PAC supporting Kennedy.

So, as you can see, Super PACS play an important role in elections these days thanks to the “Citizens United” decision handed down by the Supreme Court. Democratic candidates Clinton and Bernie Sanders both opposed the decision. Clinton favored a constitutional amendment to scrap the decision, while Sanders made it a focal point of his campaign. But with the election of Trump, it is unlikely any effort will be made to undo the decision. Campaign finance reform will definitely not be a priority in a Republican-controlled Congress.

Nevertheless, critics continue to contend that “Citizens United” has corrupted campaign financing and has put elections in the hands of the rich. A survey by the Washington Post found that 10 mega-donors have been especially generous to Super PACS, including casino magnate Sheldon Adelson and his wife Miriam, former New York mayor and media tycoon Michael Bloomberg, and billionaire George Soros.

On a similar subject, let’s take a look at the campaign finance reports of candidates for the Fourth Congressional District, which was won by Republican Mike Johnson in a runoff with Democrat Marshall Jones, 65 to 35 percent. On that race, Johnson spent $1 million, while Jones spent $469,876. Jones contributed $366,200 of his own money to his campaign and ended with a debt of $341,200.

There were some other big spenders in that race. Former state Sen. Elbert Guillory, a Republican from Opelousas, spent $980,000 and got seven percent of the vote. Trey Baucum, a Shreveport Republican, had expenditures of $773,488 and received 18 percent of the vote. He put in $150,000 of his own money and ended with a debt of $165,200. Shreveport City Councilman Oliver Jenkins, a Republican, spent $746,351 on the race. He contributed $400,000 of his own money to his campaign and ended with a debt of $400,000.

Lou Gehrig Burnett, an award-winning journalist, has been involved with politics for 44 years and was a congressional aide in Washington, D.C., for 27 years. He also served as executive assistant to former Shreveport Mayor “Bo” Williams. Burnett is the publisher of the weekly “FaxNet Update” and can be reached at 861-0552 or louburnett@comcast.net.

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