Will the coming flood of independent political money drown Minnesota’s DFL and Republican parties?

In 2002, the McCain-Feingold Act, which was supposed to limit the money poured into political campaigns, was passed by the Congress and signed into law by President George W. Bush.

But best intentions have gone far, far awry.

Following a 2010 Supreme Court decision — the controversial Citizens United case — more money than ever is pouring into politics with less transparency than ever before.

Among the big questions it raised:

• Will the vast sums of money spent by a variety of independent expenditure groups under the new rules bankrupt political parties as we’ve known them?

• And rather than making contributions to parties, will individuals make their donations directly to organizations that support their favorite causes?

Sutton and Martin try different tacks
Tony Sutton, state chairman of the Republican Party, and Ken Martin, DFL Party chair, take slightly different views on the futures of their parties.

Tony Sutton
Tony Sutton

Start with this: Both Sutton and Martin head parties that currently are in debt, which is not unusual in off-election years. Both also say their parties will be in “OK” financial shape when 2012 campaigning gets serious.

Martin, who a year ago headed one of those independent expenditure groups, says it will be the job of the parties to learn to thrive in the new environment.

Sutton, however, has deep concerns about the long-range future of the party structure.

“It’s a horrible development in politics,” said Sutton of the new political playing field.

While parties are governed by large groups of activists, he said, the independent expenditure organizations may be made up of very small groups of very large donors “representing very narrow interests.”

“Tony Sutton and Ken Martin answer to thousands and thousands of activists,” Sutton said.

Additionally, he points out, the parties are governed by strict rules administered by the Federal Elections Commission. (The state’s GOP recently was fined $170,000 by the FEC for a series of violations between 2006 and 2008.)

To date, most efforts to regulate independent organizations have been muted by court rulings.

The one benefit that the parties enjoy at the moment, Sutton said, is large, grass-roots organizations.

“We can turn out a crowd,” Sutton said. “That’s something that Alliance for a Better Minnesota [the union-funded group previously headed by Martin] can’t do.”

Sutton sees groups expanding to grass-roots organizing
But even that will change, Sutton predicted.

“It’s only a matter of time before they develop grass-roots organizing,” Sutton said. “They’ll start growing field offices.”

The impact will be huge. Sutton pointed to the recall elections recently held in Wisconsin. More than $30 million was spent — mostly by outside organizations — on a handful of races that once would have been run on a few hundred thousand dollars.

“I was in Marshall [in southwest Minnesota] during those campaigns,” Sutton said. “Because of all the television ads [on Twin Cities stations] people were all talking about the race between Sheila Harsdorf and Shelly Moore.”

Those ads, Sutton said, weren’t being paid for by the campaigns or by the parties. Rather, they were being paid by outside interests.

In the future, he’s concerned that contributors will find it “sexier” to write checks to organizations that create television ads than political parties, which use most funds to build political infrastructure.

“Over time,” Sutton said, “I fear they [the independent groups] will overtake the parties. I know there are people who say, ‘Oh, the parties are controlled by nothing but insiders.’ But that’s just not reality. The parties are controlled by hundreds of thousands of activists. It’s these organizations that are truly controlled by insiders.”

Ken Martin
Ken Martin

Martin isn’t as fearful of the potential money-sucking power of the outsiders as is Sutton. It could be because just a year ago he headed the Alliance for a Better Minnesota, the organization that receives so much credit (or blame) for pushing Mark Dayton over the top and into the governor’s office.

Parties’ new competition?
“The parties may be inclined to deal with these organizations as competitors,” Martin said.

In some respects they are.

The lifeblood of politics, political parties and independent expenditure groups is money.

“There now are more organizations asking for money,” Martin said. “We [the parties] just have to realize that’s part of the landscape.”

Although it’s not legal for parties to work in partnership with the outsiders, Martin said the key will be for those of similar interests to understand “we’re all on the same page.”

The single thing that hasn’t changed for political parties, Martin said, is that they must prove their worth.

“If you can’t elect candidates,” Martin said, “you will not get support.”

In the coming year, the competition for dollars will be especially fierce in Minnesota. The presidential race, a Senate race and the marriage amendment will attract record millions of dollars.

But both Sutton and Martin are convinced there’ll be enough left over for the parties to do their more mundane business of creating voter lists for candidates, supplying sample ballots, providing volunteers.

Republicans are motivated, Sutton said.

“Obama is the best fundraiser we have,” he said.

Martin laughed at that.

“The president is our best fundraiser, too,” he said. “And we have Michele Bachmann.”

Party spending overwhelmed?
But the amount spent by the parties will be a pittance, compared with the money surrounding the huge campaigns.

As confident as he is about the coming campaign and the relevance of the parties, Sutton constantly echoes concerns about the future.

“The parties are still the cleanest outlet for politics,” he said. “I fear money will trump all of this.”

He speaks with disdain about one of his own, Republican John McCain, and his partnership with Russ Feingold in trying to clean up the mess.

“I never was one of his fans,” said Sutton of McCain.

The GOP chairman believes McCain worked so hard to limit the amount of money that the political parties could collect “because he was always an outsider.”

McCain and Feingold, of course, could not see the future. Even before their bill reached the House, it was diluted by the Senate. Then, it was shredded by the Supreme Court.

And in the end?

“McCain and Feingold got the opposite of what they wanted” said Sutton.

Doug Grow writes about public affairs, state politics and other topics. He can be reached at dgrow [at] minnpost [dot] com.

You can also learn about all our free newsletter options.

Comments (13)

  1. Submitted by Kevin Watterson on 08/24/2011 - 09:34 am.

    I agree with both of them.

  2. Submitted by Jon Kingstad on 08/24/2011 - 10:53 am.

    Let’s look at the bright side. Assuming these independent groups are truly independent of the two main political parties, this could hearken the end of the two party duopoly which has controlled American politics for the past 200 years. With more money flowing in the system outside of the central control of these two parties, the more chances independent parties and their ideas have to flourish and succeed. Just a thought.

  3. Submitted by Sandra Christenson on 08/24/2011 - 12:29 pm.

    The GOP is afraid they let the genie out of the bottle and now they can’t control it. They learned this lesson with the Tea Party and now they are afraid for the future. Shouldn’t have disrespected McCain/Feingold so much Tony.

  4. Submitted by Ray Schoch on 08/24/2011 - 01:15 pm.

    Jon (#2) makes a good point, and I’m OK with loosening the stranglehold the two parties have on our electoral system.

    That said, however, I’m amazed to find that at least in part, I agree with Tony Sutton. The Citizens United decision pretty much disembowels campaign reform, and while “independent” money may weaken, or even do away with, our current bipolar (in several senses of the word) party system, there are side effects that don’t make me happy at all.

    One is the direct result of the Citizens United decision. Ordinary citizens (that is, those who are NOT in the upper 10 % of incomes) will never be able to match the financial resources of, say, the Koch brothers, or Target, or 3M, or any other major corporation. If corporations were uniformly kind and benevolent entities, that would be no problem, but corporations are not noted for either kindness nor benevolence. Corporations are essentially sociopathic. Their primary concern – and if you’re an investor, this is something you usually want – is making money. If they can make money and “do good” at the same time, great, but if there’s a contest, making money typically wins out over “doing good.” A corporate electoral agenda will typically have a very narrow focus (e.g., eliminate corporate taxes), which may or may not be good for the society as a whole.

    The other, which applies to both corporations and wealthy individuals, is that, by basically rendering McCain-Feingold irrelevant, the Supreme Court has made it much easier for money to flow into politics without its source being identified.

    I’m well aware that “money is the mother’s milk of politics,” but in the past, large donors were fairly easy to identify, and pursuit of a particular agenda by a candidate could fairly easily be tracked to a donor or set of donors. Most of that is apparently no longer the case, and what’s worrisome about the current situation is not only the sheer, gargantuan amount of money that’s being devoted to politics (the last presidential election cost about $270 million, or a dollar for each American citizen), but the fact that so much of it can now be poured into the system relatively anonymously. As I’ve said in other posts, I used to think of corporate governance as something out of science fiction, but the current legal and ethical atmosphere makes it a real possibility, and as a society, we will not benefit from that transformation. Corporations are basically Medieval in terms of how they operate internally.

    If we want government by and for the wealthy, this is a pretty effective recipe for that outcome, and government by oligarchy is more or less the antithesis of democracy. It not only does away with the power currently wielded by the major political parties, it also renders citizen participation – except as window dressing – largely irrelevant. The founders, both Jeffersonians and Hamiltonians, would be aghast, as well they should be. In effect, we’re toying with a return to the France of the 1780s, with a small, ridiculously wealthy aristocracy running the show, and everyone else mostly scrambling to find a way to survive.

    Tony Sutton may be worried primarily because of what this will do to the influence of his chosen party, and his position as state chairman, but even though my concern has an entirely different origin, I nonetheless agree that worry is justified.

  5. Submitted by Steve Titterud on 08/24/2011 - 02:52 pm.

    Is there any reason whatsoever to worry that the influence of these political parties may decline? What on earth would be the reason the public should want to promote their influence?

    Look what they have given us here in Minnesota: a nearly dysfunctional government, which some of them lament they couldn’t make totally dysfunctional.

    If these outfits go down the tube, so much the better. The alternative could hardly be worse.

  6. Submitted by Bill Coleman on 08/24/2011 - 02:59 pm.

    It would be great to see a group of reasonable and smart people to put together a good post-partisan plan for the USA to create a kick-ass economy with highly educated people and a decent energy and infrastructure strategy. Then they could recruit a great slate of diverse candidates to adopt the strategy, then raise some big bucks to promote it in a positive way.
    Some topics that we all know we could do a lot better on – simpler taxation mechanisms,dealing positively with an aging population, streamlined but more effective gov’t regulation, ensuring that all people who work can afford a place to live, food to eat and health care on the income they make.
    Our two parties have now proven that they have zero ideas on how to promote, adopt and solve any of these problems.

  7. Submitted by Brian Nelson on 08/24/2011 - 03:35 pm.

    This is a great piece. For the first time, so far as I can recall, I agree with Tony Sutton. The benefits of the “party” system includes consensus building amongst many individual in order to arrive at a platform. What one should fear now is not Democrats and/or Republicans but outsized monolithic interests: Google, Apple, Koch Industries, BP, China, etc. In other words, single-issue interests that buy seats in congress or Oval Offices for their candidate.

  8. Submitted by chuck holtman on 08/24/2011 - 05:53 pm.

    Mr Sutton may fear for his job, but he need not fear for the concentrated private interests that his party represents. With or without Citizens’ United, the perceived realities and issue positions of the “thousands of activists” cited by Mr Sutton are determined by concentrated private interests through their control of the establishment media and the other means by which the frames of public discourse are defined. Citizens’ United allows these interests to more efficiently advance their interests by buying politicians more directly and spending more directly to manage the reality of their target voters. So indeed the party structures may weaken, but there is nothing in Citizens’ United that augurs openings for thoughtful and civic-minded citizens to advance public-spirited candidates or platforms.

  9. Submitted by Dennis Tester on 08/24/2011 - 06:33 pm.

    Barrack Obama has said he expects to raise one billion dollars for his re-election campaign.

    I wonder where he expects to get that money?

    In 2008, it’s alleged that between $100 million and $300 million came to his campaign, paid online and laundered via untraceable cash cards, much of it from foreign sources. I guess it worked so well he’s confident he can reach a billion this time.

  10. Submitted by will lynott on 08/24/2011 - 09:08 pm.

    Jeez, people, open your eyes! Who cheered the Citizens United decision louder than Tony Sutton? All he could see back then was all that Koch Bothers money and he knew what party would be getting it. Now he’s reaping the whirlwind and you’re feeling sorry for him?

    Sutton is worried for one reason only: his party no longer has a lock on the big corporate moneybags. Having watched the republican plans to return the nation to the 19th century robber baron era,the independents, who can spend money as lavishly as they want courtesy of that misbegotten court decision, are concluding that Sutton’s party’s vision of rich v poor and corporations v workers may not, after all, be in their best interests.

    It’s been said you should be careful what you wish for. Buyer’s remorse, Tony?

  11. Submitted by Matthew Levitt on 08/25/2011 - 12:01 am.

    The winners remain the same. The Mainstream Media, where most of this money is spent, will continue to reap the benefits.

    And we expect them to report on the elections and campaigns honestly?

  12. Submitted by Annie Grandy on 08/25/2011 - 10:32 am.

    “political parties, which use most funds to build political infrastructure.”
    And that is the problem with the parties continuing to collect money from those thousands of activists. Building political infrastructure is not getting constituent generated, platform influenced legislation passed.
    Activists are seeing that all the energy spent creating a ‘party platform’ is wasted. The ‘party platforms’ are ignored by electeds at the state and federal levels who are influenced primarily by corporate lobbyists who can promise the dollars to get them re-elected.
    ALEC is a case in point. This corporate bill-mill is rolling out legislation created by corporate members without regard to ‘party platform’ or the compromises that are essential to assure that government is ‘we the people.’ The result is similar if not identical bills being proposed and passed throughout the country without regard to local needs or constituent input.
    Why would anyone donate to a party?

  13. Submitted by Eric Siverson on 08/27/2011 - 07:31 pm.

    I think the best way to get a good honest goverenment would be to auction off the positions to the highest bidder . fair to evreyone , whoever bids the highest gets the honor of serving us . This way we would also know very well that the constitution has to be followed to the letter of the law . All elected Officials should be required to show total transparancy of all income . That is the only way we will ever get corruption under control . No more privacy rights for elected servants . Sorry to tell you this is close to the way things are run now . accept the constitution isn’t followed very close , And we have very dificult time fiquring out whose paying who and what our real total costs are .

Leave a Reply