Editorial: A grassroots campaign is needed for our imperiled democracy

What's it cost to win an election these days? About $120 per voter. That's what analysts figured for Alaska, which had tightly contested races for governor and senator -- the costliest per capita campaigns in the 2014 midterm elections.

More money was spent on congressional races this year than ever before: $4 billion nationally. Nearly a billion dollars was spent on TV advertising alone, and half of that was spent in just 10 Senate races. The three costliest Senate races this season were North Carolina, where both candidates spent $113 million; Colorado, where $100 million was spent; and Iowa, $85 million.

As worrying as the amount of money is its source. In the battleground states, where one party -- usually the Democrats this election cycle -- was vulnerable, outside groups outspent the campaigns themselves. For example, of the 87,800 political ads that ran in Kentucky this year for all campaigns, one in seven was from a single group, Kentucky Opportunity Coalition, which favored the eventual winner and soon-to-be Senate majority leader, Mitch McConnell.

Kentucky Opportunity Coalition seems to exist only as a post office box in Louisville, and lists no staff or governing board on its website. (The sole name associated with the group is an adviser, Scott Jennings, who worked in the George W. Bush White House and for two of McConnell's previous campaigns.)

It is an example of rising influence of 501(c)(4) groups, so-called social welfare groups, following the Supreme Court ruling in Citizens United, which loosened campaign finance restrictions on corporations and certain nonprofits. They are no longer restricted from endorsing or opposing specific candidates. Moreover, they may raise unlimited amounts of money to fund overt political messages without having to disclose the source of their funds.

Groups like Kentucky Opportunity Coalition; Crossroads GPS, the conservative group co-founded by Karl Rove; and Organizing for Action, which is what President Barack Obama's campaign operation turned into after the 2012 election, contribute nothing discernable to "social welfare" but are seemingly bottomless pits of what has come to be called "dark money."

They may well be killing the American experiment with democracy.

In the 2010 midterms, when dark money first emerged, groups that did not have to disclose the source of their money spent $161 million, according to The New York Times. This year, such groups spent $216 million, 69 percent of that on behalf of Republicans, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.

It doesn't end with dark money. In the 2014 election, organizations that must disclose donors, like political action committees, saw an overall decrease in the number of individual donors -- about 666,000 this year compared to 817,000 in 2010 -- but a sharp rise in a new class of elite donors unfettered by previous campaign laws.

Why does that matter? Because it turns out that money is a very reliable predictor of who will win an election: This election cycle, according to the Center for Public Integrity, 94 percent of House candidates who outspent their opponents won. For the Senate, it was 82 percent. It looks increasingly easy to buy an election, and left unchecked, the United States is sliding into plutocracy.

Reportedly, ahead of the 2016 presidential elections, the Internal Revenue Service is drafting regulations that would shine some light into the dark money nonprofits or curb some of their activities, but the fate of such regulation is unclear.

Don McGahn, a former Republican chairman of the Federal Election Commission, told the Center for Public Integrity that IRS efforts would be futile. "If the IRS tries to change the rules, they're in for one hell of a fight," he said.

The fight for election reform will not be led by the politicians this system has elected. It will need a grassroots campaign led by people's groups in every precinct throughout the country.

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