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Outside money contributing to polarized politics, study finds

TNS Regional News • Jun 18, 2014 at 2:07 PM

The influx of cash into congressional elections might be pushing lawmakers further left or right, depending on their party, as they worry about the impact of outside spending on their campaigns, according to a new report.

In a more than 100-page report released today, Ohio State University law Professor Daniel P. Tokaji and Ohio State Graduate Research Fellow Renata E.B. Strause found that the impact of outside spending might also contribute to the deep polarization in Congress as well as mean less time devoted to the work of Congress and more time spent fundraising.

The report aims not only to quantify how much spending occurs in federal elections, but what the impact of such spending is, including whether campaign donations result in any legislative impact.

It found that, outside groups often do much of the dirty work in congressional campaigns such as running negative ads. But those same groups, candidates complained, often muddled the messages that the campaigns themselves were trying to send.

Those interviewed for the report said independent spending made campaigns “dumber and sillier,” and in some cases forced candidates to become “bit players in their own campaigns.”

The growth of spending has also diminished the impact of political parties, with some of those interviewed by Strause and Tokaji describing state and local party organizations as “useless” and a “formality.” One of their few benefits, the report found, was that they could allow candidates to send mail at a reduced rate.

The cost of running a congressional campaign has skyrocketed over the past four decades, rising from $53,384 for the average House candidate in 1974 to $1.178 million in 2012. For the average Senate seat, that figure has gone from $437,482 in 1974 to $9.325 million. The spike, the report’s authors found, is close to 450 percent accounting for inflation, outpacing the rise in the cost of college and the rise in the cost of gasoline over the same period of time.

With that has come a growth in outside spending: Non-candidate spending on congressional races — including spending from political parties — reached $714 million during the 2012 elections alone. Of that, more than 577 non-party outside groups spent $473 million during that campaign.

And with that growth comes influence: Lawmakers said that the threat of money being spent on an opposing candidate – particularly a primary opponent — has in some cases spurred lawmakers to be more cautious or tow the party line.

“The question you’re asking is do they threaten you, and the answer is they don’t have to,” said former Sen. Bob Kerrey, D-Neb., who ran for Senate and lost in 2012. “They threaten you — they’re threatening because you know what they can do.”

The study also attempted to determine the degree to which outside groups and congressional campaigns coordinate. While it found little to no evidence of direct coordination, which is illegal, it’s obvious, the study’s authors concluded that campaigns often “telegraphed” needs to outside groups who could do their bidding.

The report drew from interviews — both on-the-record and on background — of 43 staff, former lawmakers, campaign employees and representatives of such groups. Among those interviewed on the record was former Rep. Steve LaTourette, R-Bainbridge Township, who retired from Congress in 2012.


By Jessica Wehrman - The Columbus Dispatch, Ohio (MCT)

©2014 The Columbus Dispatch (Columbus, Ohio)

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