For gun control advocates, Robin Kelly’s Democraticprimary victory in Illinois on February 26 represented yet another incremental step forward in the fierce battle for stricter gun legislation in the United States. And momentum appears to be strengthening: a recent NBC/WSJ poll measured 61 percent support for tighter gun laws, up five percentage points from January. This is an unusual trajectory for a once hot-button issue months after the underlying spark, the Newtown shootings, has faded from the news.
The Illinois special election only gained national prominence, however, following New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s decision to spend over $2 million — via his super PAC, Independence USA — in support of Kelly, a proponent of stringent gun control, against her Democratic rival Debbie Halvorson, who had received a perfect “A” rating from the National Rifle Association. The scale was enormous: by February 13, Independence USA had spent more than double the combined total of all five Democratic candidates. Ultimately, Halvorson, the early front-runner, could not compete. But while the result was an impressive victory for Independence USA, liberal activists have ample reason to fret: the future implications of rampant external campaign spending are deeply worrisome.
Bloomberg is certainly no stranger to extravagant campaign financing: his 2005 mayoral campaign broke records as he dished out over $100 million — nearly $200 per vote — to defeat Bill Thompson, whom he outspent approximately 12-to-1. More recently, following a New York judge’s reversal of his ban on large soft drinks this week, Bloomberg has promised to redouble his efforts to combat obesity, boasting: “You can take it to the bank.”
But it was not until last October that the New York mayor’s nationwide king-making efforts first took shape. In announcing the formation of the super PAC, a senior aide had exulted: “This spending sends a clear message that the mayor intends to keep his wallet open after he leaves office to influence national policy around issues like guns, education and marriage equality.” Take it to the bank indeed.
At the time, many progressives cheered the appearance of Independence USA as a welcome response to the deluge of money then flooding the airwaves from conservative activists. After the Illinois special election results, the applause is likely to grow louder. But the degradation of campaign finance laws, a development that has facilitated the proliferation of organizations like Bloomberg’s, is an unqualified blight on democracy. Liberals may have triumphed in this round, but the true message of Robin Kelly’s victory is that no political candidate is immune to the scourge of outside (and outsized) spending.
Indeed, a tortured logic bedevils Bloomberg’s organization and its defenders. The mayor is correct to point out that, for all the paroxysms of fear it generates among the political class, the NRA has a decidedly mixed record at best in influencing elections. And yet despite his recent claim that “the NRA’s power is so vastly overrated,” Bloomberg nonetheless found the organization worthy enough to warrant expending significant sums of his own money in opposition.
Even if, for some, the specter of loose capital running amok throughout the American political landscape is less than terrifying, events on the horizon should give one pause. On February 19, the Supreme Court agreed to hear McCutcheon v. Federal Election Commission in its next term starting October 2013. A victory for the plaintiff, Shaun McCutcheon, would seriously debilitate the efforts of campaign finance reformers by eliminating the aggregate individual contribution limit per two-year election cycle. In conjunction with the Court’s notorious Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission decision from 2010, which lifted the ban on corporate expenditures and led to an explosion of outside spending during last year’s election campaigns, such a ruling in McCutcheon would augur a decisive transformation of American electoral norms — from “one person, one vote” to something approaching “one dollar, one vote.”
Robin Kelly’s win last month is thus the ultimate Pyrrhic victory: the House of Representatives will soon boast a new addition to its pro-gun control caucus, but the journey required to achieve this end has further demonstrated the futility of an existing campaign finance framework already on life support. Progressives should be reticent to celebrate. There is a virtually infinite supply of well-heeled citizens willing to throw money around in support of their political passions. But there is no guarantee that their pet causes will remotely resemble those of Michael Bloomberg.
Jay Pinho is a master’s candidate in international affairs at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs. He blogs at The First Casualty and tweets as @jaypinho.