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More campaign ads — and maybe confusion

There'll be a lot more special-interest money in political campaigns. And maybe even more confusion for voters trying to sort out who is behind the increasing clamor of TV messages.
Supreme Court Campaign Finance
Common Cause Public Campaign President Nick Nyhard, right, accompanied by Common Cause President Bob Edgar, left, and Campaign Legal Center Executive Director Gerald Hebert, center, speak after the Supreme Court campaign finance ruling. Lauren Victoria Burke / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

There'll be a lot more special-interest money in political campaigns. And maybe even more confusion for voters trying to sort out who is behind the increasing clamor of TV messages.

The Supreme Court's 5-4 decision Thursday to allow corporations and unions to spend freely on elections seems certain to boost the political power of big business and labor. And perhaps diminish the clout of the political parties.

Its impact will be felt immediately. This year's midterm House and Senate campaigns already are under way.

The decision also opens the door for more challenges to already weakened campaign finance laws. The Supreme Court may be asked to go even further and let corporations and unions coordinate with campaigns or donate directly to them.

It's too early to say which political party Thursday's ruling benefits more. But Democrats, who draw a lot of support from less-wealthy unions, seemed glum, while Republicans, who tend to be backed by big-spending corporations, celebrated.

"It is a major 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," said President Barack Obama, striking a populist tone.

But Sen. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the top Senate Republican, said: "For too long, some in this country have been deprived of full participation in the political process. Our democracy depends upon free speech, not just for some but for all."

The ruling lowered the six-decade wall separating corporations and unions from candidates for president and Congress, allowing the wealthy entities to spend as much as they want from their general treasuries to run advertisements advocating the victory or defeat of candidates at any point before elections.

It's likely to prompt businesses and labor to dole out unfathomable amounts of money in campaigns nationwide. The goal: elect the people who will do their bidding, while defeating those who won't.

And that means these special interests now will hold even more sway over elected officials than they already do, and certainly more than the average person. As has long been the case in politics, whoever has more money has more clout — and potentially more access to power.

In the worst case, looser restrictions could breed corruption of the sort that has been a subtext of U.S. history since the dawn of the nation — and that campaign finance restrictions were intended to stamp out.

"It has the potential to seriously corrupt and distort our democratic system," said Trevor Potter, president and general counsel of the Campaign Legal Center, a group that advocates strong campaign finance restrictions. "The danger here is not that you're going to see a flood of corporate spending, rather that you will see threats of it in the legislative process."

Corporations and unions could use negative campaign ads as a lobbying tool, threatening lawmakers with an onslaught unless they vote a certain way on legislation. That could dilute the voices of a legislator's own constituents.

"They're going to be getting hammered much closer to Election Day on the air. That will make it tougher to cast tough votes," said Joe Sandler, a former general counsel for the Democratic National Committee.

Not all corporations and unions will choose to enter the fray. Corporations, particularly those that are largest and nationally known, have been reticent to engage directly in the rough and tumble of politics. They have boards of directors, stockholders and customers of varying political views, and don't want to alienate them.

The ruling was a boon for the First Amendment, giving companies and unions the power to say what they want when they want. But fewer restrictions could also mean an uptick in nastiness, lies and misinformation. Ads are likely to get tougher now that outside groups can expressly advocate for or against candidates.

Voters will be challenged to discern who is telling the truth and the motivations behind the ad campaigns.

Cash-strapped candidates may welcome independent spending that attacks an opponent, but at the same time they'll lose control of the messages and issues in their campaigns. Their pitches will be diluted. And they won't be able to stop ads they don't like.

"It's going to be the Wild, Wild West," said Ben Ginsberg, a Republican attorney who has represented several GOP presidential campaigns. "Candidates and political parties are going to have to figure out how to make their voices heard in the really loud First Amendment symphony that's going to take place."