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How big money will buy 2014 races

By Errol Louis, CNN Commentator
January 9, 2014 -- Updated 1945 GMT (0345 HKT)
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Errol Louis: Supreme Court ruling that let corporations sway elections drew warnings
  • Louis: Obama, McCain were right to say ruling would allow outsize influence on democracy
  • Louis says in race after race, outside groups shaping outcomes
  • More than $25 million in outside money already raised for 2014 races, he says

Editor's note: Errol Louis is the host of "Inside City Hall," a nightly political show on NY1, a New York all-news channel.

(CNN) -- President Barack Obama and his 2008 Republican opponent, Sen. John McCain, disagree about lots of things, but one point they agree on is that the landmark 2010 Supreme Court ruling in the Citizens United v. FEC case -- which makes it easier for corporations, unions and other associations to spend freely to influence elections -- was a bad move for democracy that America would live to regret.

"This ruling opens the floodgates for an unlimited amount of special-interest money into our democracy " Obama said. "The last thing we need to do is hand more influence to the lobbyists in Washington or more power to the special interests to tip the outcome of elections."

McCain blasted the ruling as "arrogant, uninformed, naïve," calling it "the worst decision of the United States Supreme Court in the 21st century."

Errol Louis
Errol Louis

This year, both men will likely have the right to claim: told you so. In state after state, money -- much of it flowing from sources carefully shielded from public view -- has been pouring into local races in recent years, and is on track to shatter records in 2014.

That, in turn, will mean more business owners and union executives will flood the airwaves with campaign messages that threaten to drown out the voices of local citizens. As Obama put it, Citizens United "gives the special-interest lobbyists new leverage to spend millions on advertising to persuade elected officials to vote their way -- or to punish those who don't."

Indeed, just as Obama and McCain feared, within months of the Citizens United ruling, political operatives went to work, especially in the 24 states where limits on contributions by outside corporations and unions were struck down by the court.

How super PACs work
McCain: Corporations aren't people

Three years later, there's so much political cash flowing, and so many ways to shield its origins, that it's hard to arrive at a single figure on how much special-interest money is being spent.

In 2012, according to the Center for Public Integrity, political action committees, unions and other outside groups spent $209 million to influence the outcome of elections in 38 states.

A recently published analysis by The Washington Post and the Center for Responsive Politics estimates a network of 17 conservative groups pumped $407 million into local and national races in 2012, and unions spent a comparable $400 million on state, local and federal elections the same year.

Those big numbers translate into major impact on the ground:

• In New Hampshire, the Democratic Governors Association and national labor unions spent $9 million to help elect Maggie Hassan as governor.

• In North Carolina, conservative activist Art Pope parlayed the new rules into a set of victories that left the state with full Republican control of the state government for the first time since the 19th century.

• During last year's race for New York mayor, an outside group calling itself New York Is Not for Sale ran more than $1 million worth of ads against Christine Quinn, then the speaker of the City Council. Months of battering by the outside group took their toll: Quinn slipped in the polls, never recovered and went on to defeat in September.

• At the same time as New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie was locking down a record re-election win last year, outside groups spent $35 million to elect state legislators likely to thwart Republican Christie's agenda.

• In California, labor groups spent $130 million in local elections in 2012, while business groups spent $81 million -- and other $11 million came from a mysterious Arizona group that paid to help defeat a tax increase.

So many states have been swamped by funds that one reform group has identified what it calls puppet states -- places where most of the money spent on local elections comes from groups outside those states.

And although 2014 is only a few days old, the Center for Responsive Politics estimates that outside groups have already raised more than $25 million looking to influence congressional elections. That number is sure to swell as the weeks go by.

It will take concerned local effort to wrest control of local elections from the monied interests. The Supreme Court seems unlikely to change its mind and reverse the Citizens United ruling. That leaves it up to the rest of us to demand more disclosure by outside groups -- and to tell politicians, in no uncertain terms, that candidates supported by outside expenditure groups will be viewed as part of the problem in a democracy where the voices of citizens are being drowned out by the roar of the moneymen.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

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The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Errol Louis.

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