Political Animal


May 16, 2012 12:57 PM Big Wallets, Cheap Media Markets

By Ed Kilgore

At WaPo’s Plum Line, Jonathan Bernstein makes a simple but important observation about Deb Fischer’s upset win in Nebraska’s GOP Senate primary:

This outcome reveals a key fact about the post-Citizens United landscape. We are going to see a lot more outcomes like this one. Outside money matters more in Congressional races than presidential, and more in primaries than general elections. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but for better or worse it’s the world that we live in now. And as we’ve just discovered, a single donor can be responsible for the election of a general election Senate candidate — or even, if Fischer wins, a Senator.

Jonathan’s alluding to the latest-minute $200k buy made by Chicago Cubs owner Joe Ricketts for two ads, one boosting Fischer (who was already surging in the polls) and the other drawing attention to ethics issues involving long-time front-runner Jon Bruning. $200k will buy you some serious time in markets like Omaha. And it will in other down-ballot, low-cost political venues shortly before the general election. Just as importantly, it’s generally accepted that paid broadcast media is a bigger deal anyway in down-ballot races where the candidates are not as well known and voter allegiances are more fluid.

Nebraska also shows that the strategic deployment of outside money can be critical. At another corner of WaPo, Jennifer Rubin claims that Fischer’s win shows “Money is overrated,” because “Fischer was outspent $440,000 to Bruning’s $3.6 million.” This ignores outside money entirely, but more fundamentally, ignores the dynamics of the race. The heavy attacks on Bruning financed by pro-Stenberg groups like the Club for Growth and the Senate Conservative Fund pretty much neutralized Bruning’s own spending without helping Stenberg, putting the unscathed Fischer in a position to benefit from Ricketts’ perfectly-timed salvo.

Perhaps it’s just a matter of Nebraska’s proximity to Kansas, but this phenomenon reminds me of the very first time I became aware of the power of last-minute spending by shadowy “independent” groups: in 1996, when a previously unknown entity called Triad Management (which turned out to be a vehicle for the Koch Brothers) dumped money into late attack ads on Democratic Senate candidate Jill Docking and turned what looked to be a close Docking win into a victory for Republican Sam Brownback. Docking basically didn’t know what hit her until it was too late. I fear we will see a lot of this sort of thing in October, particularly in places where big wallets carry a super-sized wallop.

Ed Kilgore is a contributing writer to the Washington Monthly. He is managing editor for The Democratic Strategist and a senior fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute. Find him on Twitter: @ed_kilgore.


  • Steve P on May 16, 2012 1:05 PM:

    "At another corner of WaPo, Jennifer Rubin claims that Fischer’s win shows “Money is overrated,” because “Fischer was outspent $440,000 to Bruning’s $3.6 million.” This ignores outside money entirely, but more fundamentally, ignores the dynamics of the race."

    So . . . Is Rubin really stupid, or just a shill? Oh wait, it's the Post. George Will must be hearing footsteps.

  • c u n d gulag on May 16, 2012 1:12 PM:

    I wonder if Robers worries at all what history will think of him and his Courts decision?

    Probably not.
    Rehnquist probably didn't worry that Bush v. Gore was the worst abomination since the 19th Century.

    So, "Citizens" probably won't faze Roberts, who sold democracy to the highest bidders.

  • RepublicanPointOfView on May 16, 2012 1:23 PM:

    re Steve P... Is Rubin really stupid Yes.

    Thank God for OUR Supreme Court and their Citizens United Not Timid vs FEC ruling!

    re c u n d gulag... Roberts did not sell democracy to the highest bidders. That was already done. The Roberts Courts just provided legal justification and validation for it!

    Very good to be hearing from you again c u n d. Hope you are at peace.

  • Peter C on May 16, 2012 1:38 PM:


    Repeat it over and over, and then build a get-out-the-vote network in your neighborhood.

    Until unlimited campaign contributions are again illegal, we've got to do all we can to make them INEFFECTIVE.

  • c u n d gulag on May 16, 2012 1:41 PM:

    R POV,
    You're 100% right, and I stand corrected.

    I guess we're doing about as well as could be expected.

  • Ron Byers on May 16, 2012 1:48 PM:

    The Fischer win shows what can happen when money is spent strategically. We all seem to think that only Republicans can pull this kind of move, but in small states, there is no reason to think that a handful of smart millionaires can't trump a couple of dumb billionaires. We Democrats have been playing entirely too much beltway defense. We need to go on the offense in red (small) states across the country. We need to force Republicans to defend their home turf. We need to do it all the time. Force King Karl to fight to keep some senator or other. Take the Koch brothers off their game. The 50 state strategy has the benefit of defusing the impact of big money in any given race. The 19 state strategy gives big money 19 targets of opportunity.

  • Doug on May 16, 2012 7:47 PM:

    So, basically what you're saying is that large numbers of Republican voters have no idea who's running, what the positions of those running are and rely on someone to call them on the telephone and tell them who to vote for?
    Does the DNC know this? It might come in handy in November...

  • JonH on May 17, 2012 12:33 PM:

    "He pulls a knife, you pull a gun, he sends one of yours to the hospital, you send one of his to the morgue. That's the Chicago way..."

    Sean Connery, The Untouchables

    (I don't remember the character's name, but I do remember the performance after 25 years. That's an
    example of REAL 'wealth creation'.)

    We can adapt this play with Santorum/Gingrich as Stenberg, Romney as Bruning, and Obama as Fisher,
    but with relatively more money (almost a match for Romney) and other advantages. Wait until October to
    let the situation clarify, then make the big move. What can go wrong?