WASHINGTON – Millionaires and billionaires are increasing their influence in federal elections, leaving political parties to play more limited roles, and raising questions about who sets the agenda in campaigns.
In a handful of key Senate races, the biggest and loudest players so far are well-funded groups that don’t answer to any candidate or political party. That can make it hard for voters to know who is responsible for hard-hitting TV ads and other “messaging.”
Candidates and parties acknowledge the outside groups, such as those financed by billionaire brothers Charles and David Koch, can be helpful. And last week’s Supreme Court decision voiding overall limits on contributions to candidates, PACs and political parties may give the parties a modest financial boost.
But some party officials say even friendly independent groups can be unpredictable, unaccountable and worrisome.
“The difficulty with outside groups is they may not understand what’s happening inside a district,” said Rep. Steve Israel of New York, who oversees Democrats’ House races this year. He said he sometimes sees TV ads from pro-Democratic groups “and I cringe. I don’t know where they’re going.”
Nicolle Wallace, a top aide in the 2004 and 2008 Republican presidential campaigns, echoed that view.
“When you land in a battleground state, and you plan a speech the next day on, say, military spending,” she said, it can be jarring to see a barrage of supposedly friendly TV ads on a different topic. Suddenly the campaign must prepare talking points, research and other materials it had not anticipated, Wallace said.
The clout and proper place of the Republican and Democratic parties, which have dominated U.S. politics since the Civil War, are now more in doubt than they were a few years ago.
“It obviously diminishes the roles of the parties because we have this large influx of outside money,” said Sen. John McCain of Arizona, the GOP’s 2008 presidential nominee. Massive spending with no accountability, he said, is a scandal waiting to happen.
The Supreme Court last week removed limits on the overall amount that wealthy donors can give to candidates and political parties. The two parties now can try to wring more money from rich donors who previously were limited in total donations each election cycle.
But the court retained limits on how much a donor can give to any one campaign or party committee. More important, it didn’t touch the relatively new type of super PACs, such as the one funded by the Kochs.
The court ruling may enable the political parties to raise more money in various ways. But the impact will be modest for each party’s three traditional committees, which focus on House races, Senate races and the overall party.
As the outside groups have gained muscle, the leaders of both national parties concede they’ve taken on more technical and mundane duties.
“I have to focus on the things that I most control,” said Reince Priebus, chairman of the Republican National Committee. Those include “the mechanics, having boots on the ground, fixing the digital and data problems.”
Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz of Florida, chairman of the Democratic National Committee, said: “We’re a lot more tactical and granular these days than we were a few years ago.”
“Many years ago, we funded more national ads,” she said. “It was more top-down, with less connection to grassroots.”
Gary Pearce, a long-time Democratic strategist in North Carolina, said: “it’s not the candidates who drive the campaigns today. It’s the outside groups that dictate the agenda.”
North Carolina’s highly competitive Senate race is a testing ground for the outside groups. First-term Sen. Kay Hagan, D-N.C., is struggling against an avalanche of attack ads. Most are funded by Americans for Prosperity, the Koch-affiliated group.
Hagan says voters don’t realize who pays for the ads. All major campaign players, she said, “need to disclose who their donors are, and be much more transparent.”
Money raised and spent by the parties is subject to such disclosures. But the independent groups’ money is not.
Republicans are hailing the court’s ruling as a triumph, while top Democrats denounce it.
GOP Sen. Orrin Hatch of Utah called it “a victory for all Americans” and for vital “free-speech protections.”
House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi of California said the court “added great insult to a terrible injury to our democracy,” namely the high court’s 2010 Citizens United ruling. It allowed outside groups like Americans for Prosperity, and its liberal counterparts, to raise unlimited sums from undisclosed donors and use them for hard-hitting TV ads and more.
“Just because the ante is raised for everyone,” Pelosi said, “does not make it right.”
Some officials caution against overstating the outside groups’ powers.
Priebus said the two parties still raise and spend more money than do independent groups. These groups can be helpful, Priebus said, “but they can’t speak for the party, they can’t write the platform, they can’t sit down and co-ordinate with the candidates.”
There’s no question that independent groups can help a party, as Americans for Prosperity seems to be doing in North Carolina by hammering Hagan before the GOP even picks a nominee. Hagan has yet to air commercials of her own.
It’s conceivable, however, that a North Carolina Republican candidate or two eventually will take issue with a Koch-backed ad.
Joe Scarborough, host of MSNBC’s “Morning Joe,” told viewers that when he was a Florida GOP congressman he once became so incensed by a supposedly friendly independent ad that he called to complain. He said the group’s officials told him they could not talk with him.
Associated Press writer Philip Elliott contributed to this report. Follow Charles Babington on Twitter: https://twitter.com/cbabington.