Citizens misdirected

If a Republican wave really is breaking over the country next week—and it seems likely that at least a little one is headed our way—then it’s the Supreme Court that turned on the tap.

We all know the name of the case by now. It was in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission that the 5-4 conservative majority of the court said corporations and labor unions are now free to spend as much as they like on attack ads and other political activity.

President Barack Obama called Citizens United a victory “for Big Oil, Wall Street banks, health-insurance companies and the other powerful interests that marshal their power every day in Washington to drown out the voices of everyday Americans.”

But on the floor of the U.S. House of Representatives, around that same time, Rep. Dan Lungren said of Citizens United: “This is a great day, Mr. Speaker. This is a great day,” and added that the “Supreme Court finally got it right.”

Of course, Lungren has been on the receiving end of about $15,000 in contributions from Citizen United, the conservative 501(c)(4) group that brought and won the lawsuit tossing out our already weak campaign-finance laws.

Since that “great day,” Lungren has also been a big beneficiary of the American Crossroads project, funded by millionaires from the oil and gas and hedge-fund industries, and directed by none other than right-wing shot caller Karl Rove.

The group has spent $690,000 to smear Lungren’s Democratic opponent, Elk Grove doctor Ami Bera. In fact, American Crossroads has spent more on the Lungren race than any other contest in the nation.

“It’s about special interests coming in and protecting one of their own,” said Lucinda Guinn, Bera’s campaign manager.

A little west of here, in the 11th Congressional District, Democrat Jerry McNerney is struggling to hold on to a seat he swiped from Richard Pombo in 2006. Pombo was always a reliable vote for big business and big polluters. This year, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and other outside conservative groups have plowed $1 million into attack ads against McNerney—hoping to win the seat back.

And one of the disturbing differences this year is the upswing—thanks again to Citizens United—in secret campaign expenditures. The decision allowed groups like American Crossroads’ sister organization, Crossroads GPS, along with the chamber, to keep the donors to their political slush funds completely secret.

Congressional Democrats tried and failed to pass new laws requiring disclosure, and to provide for the public financing of campaigns for candidates who eschew special-interest largesse.

Democrats have tried to take advantage of the new rules, too, but The Washington Post found earlier this month that GOP-aligned groups were outspending their left-leaning counterparts 7-to-1. Of course, Lungren voted against any reform. No doubt another great day for him.

There are lots of reasons Republicans expect to win big next week. Democrats have failed to turn the economy around in the 21 months that Obama’s been in office. Health-care reform incited anti-government tea partiers but also alienated progressive Democrats who felt the White House plan was a sellout.

Add in the fact that the party in power almost always loses seats in the midterm elections, and that Democrats are trying to hold on to many seats that were historically Republican but which flipped during Obama’s historic White House run—and the time seems ripe enough for a correction.

But it’s hard to imagine that the angry, flailing, 2010 version of the Republican revolution we’re about to witness would have gained the same momentum without its corporate sponsors.