The Real Effect of Citizens United on the GOP

I have always been extremely skeptical of the conventional wisdom about the effects of the Supreme Court’s decision on Citizens United. It has certainly changed things. But not always in the way we’ve assumed. Here are some of the things I’m paying attention to in terms of how it’s impacting the 2016 presidential race.

Insurgent Candidates

What we saw happen in the 2012 Republican presidential primary is that several insurgent candidates were able to hang on longer than they would have otherwise because of funding from their big superpac donors (i.e., Newt Gingrich). This is at least one of the reasons why 17 candidates threw their hat in the ring this time around.

A Weakened RNC

RNC Chair Reince Priebus has tried his best to reign in the extremism currently gripping the Republican Party. But because candidates no longer need the Party establishment to survive (see above), he’s pretty much been neutered. The Koch brothers are even threatening to set up their own “shadow party” when it comes to some of the functions normally carried out by the RNC.

SuperPacs Can’t Replace Hard Money

While donors can make unlimited contributions to superpacs, they are limited to $2,700 for a candidate’s campaign. As we saw with Scott Walker when he dropped out of the race, his superpac still had approximately $20 million in the bank. But he wasn’t raising much of anything when it comes to the hard money candidates need from donors to operate their basic campaign functions.

We’re now hearing some of the same issues with Jeb Bush’s campaign – even though his superpac raised $100 million. Jeb might be running into the same problem Hillary Clinton faced in her primary against Barack Obama. Once a donor has given the limit to the campaign, they can’t give again until after the convention (when they can give another $2,700). Based on the latest fundraising report, Jeb is only getting 5% of his campaign cash from small donations. I suspect that a lot of his supporters have already maxed out. If he can’t widen his donor base (i.e., attract more voters), he’ll continue to be in trouble.

What Can All That Superpac Money Buy?

The traditional view is that superpacs are all about buying expensive air time for TV ads. But we’re seeing more and more reports indicating that those ads aren’t making any difference. And yet, Republicans continue to invest…big time.

The question becomes, if not TV ads, what do you do with all that superpac money? Some candidates, like Carly Fiorina, are experimenting with “creative” ways to get around the laws about campaigns not coordinating with superpacs. I’ll be watching to see, not only how far Republicans are willing to push those limits, but how successful the strategies will be.

Overall, it’s beginning to look like Citizens United has had a pretty de-stabilizing impact on the Republican Party. There are plenty of places to point when looking for the source of the chaos they’re currently experiencing. But I think we miss a big one if we don’t consider the impact of this Supreme Court decision that everyone assumed would simply be a windfall for them.

Nancy LeTourneau

Nancy LeTourneau is a contributing writer for the Washington Monthly.