More than two years after the Supreme Court decimated campaign finance regulations with their Citizens United decision creating the dreaded “super-PAC” and allowing unlimited and anonymous donations from individuals and corporations, a conservative oil tycoon from Oklahoma has become an embodiment of the fears voiced by activists and critics of the Court’s ruling.
While the impact of Citizens United on American politics has been undeniable since January 2010 — opening floodgates of anonymous funding for “independent” groups and unlimited contributions to so-called “super-PACs — this transformative era in how elections are contested and won has gone mostly unnoticed by the average American voter. Polls show the public is vaguely aware of the rising tide of money and influence in politics, but it has not become an overwhelming issue at a time of economic uncertainty.
New developments concerning corporate influence, presidential politics, unlimited contributions and the role of super-PAC s could change the landscape, taking the ramifications of Citizens United from abstract to undeniable reality.
An NBC News investigation finds that one of the single largest donors to “Restore Our Future,” a super-PAC supporting Mitt Romney’s presidential bid and created by former Romney aides, may have been given one of the most prestigious positions in the Romney campaign in exchange for his generous contribution.
Harold Hamm, a conservative billionaire from Oklahoma and chairman of oil exploration company Continental Resources from Oklahoma, delivered a nearly one million dollar check to Restore Our Future shortly after he was named as the GOP presidential nominee’s leading energy adviser. Romney has campaigned extensively on aggressive oil and gas exploration, policies that would reap massive profits for Hamm’s company.
Mr. Hamm is a legend in the oil industry, one of the most conservative and aggressive players in the industry’s push to expand oil and gas exploration. Known as “The Man Who Bought North Dakota” for his massive purchases of land for oil fields in that state, Hamm has huge investments in oil that has colored his politics and led to his reputation as one of the industry’s most strident opponents of climate change science.
As chief energy adviser to Romney, Hamm stands to greatly influence potential policies and initiatives that would likely benefit his business interests. In that sense, the nearly seven-figure check Hamm wrote last month to Romney’s super-PAC — constituting most of what the group raised in April – is likely to be a very wise investment.
Just one month after he was named Mitt Romney’s top energy adviser, Oklahoma billionaire Harold Hamm contributed $985,000 to the top pro-Romney Super PAC — a donation that was the second largest the group collected in April, according to a new campaign disclosure filing today.
The cash infusion from Hamm, the chairman and CEO of Continental Resources — a firm that touts itself as “America’s Oil Champion” — is a new example of how big Super PAC donors can make their policy views heard by the campaigns they are supporting.
Hamm, whose company is the largest leaseholder of the Bakken, the giant shale formation in North Dakota, has been an outspoken critic of President Obama’s energy policy, including his decision to postpone the Keystone pipeline and push legislation to curb tax breaks for oil exploration.
On March 1, Romney — during a campaign stop in Fargo, North Dakota — announced that Hamm would serve as chairman of the candidate’s “Energy Policy Advisory Group” charged with developing a new “pro-jobs, pro-market, pro-American” energy agenda, according to a statement put out by the campaign that day. Hamm said in the statement he was backing Romney in part because he was “acutely aware” of “how outrageously [Obama] has attacked energy producers in particular.”
On April 3, Hamm made his $985,000 contribution to Restore Our Future, the pro-Romney Super PAC, the group reported today. That accounts for a little more than one-fifth of the $4.6 million the group raised last month.
The oil tycoon had already contributed the maximum $2,500 allowed for individual contributions directly to the Romney campaign and the Republican National Committee. Frozen out of direct channels to the candidate and party, Hamm’s decision to pour most of the wealth he had earmarked for political investments into an outside group is not unusual.
Super-PACs widely known to be supportive of a particular candidate — but barred by law from directly coordinating with that candidate — have become massive funnels where corporations and wealthy business owners can direct eye-popping amounts of cash into “safe” conduits where they know the money will be used in much the same way as if they had cut a check to the candidate him-or-her-self.
From the 2010 election through the current campaign, super-PACs and other outside organizations have become the leading money machines of American politics, especially for conservative candidates and causes. It’s not much of a stretch to assume that, like the smaller direct donations to campaigns, individuals funding super-PAC’s with clear affiliations are going to expect something in return for their largess.
But unlike other forms of campaign welfare from the rich and well-connected, such as “bundlers” or donors that collect multiple contributions to reach a certain dollar figure for the candidate, it is increasingly hard to track who is giving to super-PACs and what they may be getting in return. The Romney campaign has refused subsequent attempts to release the names of additional “advisers” on various issues in hopes of matching them to super-PAC contributions.
The outing of Hamm as Romney’s leading energy adviser was only possible thanks to the campaign’s public announcement of his support earlier this year. His super-PAC contribution came a moth later, acting as a smoke screen to throw off those seeking to uncover the apparent quid pro quo.
Even without confirmation from the Romney campaign of the names of formal “advisers” to the candidate, a glance at the contributor list of “Restore Our Future” finds a host of donations — mane of over one million dollars — from individuals with deep connections to corporate interests. It is easy to imagine most of these names ending up as “advisers” to the campaign and influencing national policy as a gesture of gratitude for their super-PAC contributions.
Though the success and influence of super-PACs has generally been a Republican phenomenon — the major Democratic super-PAC public backed by President Obama has raised little money — the epidemic of influence peddling is most certainly a bipartisan affair.
Despite a promise from President Obama that lobbyists and others connected to corporations and special interests would have no access to his White House, a Washington Post report finds that has not been the case. As his reelection campaign escalates, visitor logs show the Obama White House has become a revolving door of industry lobbyists and well-connected individuals seeking to influence the president and maximize policy for their own gain.
More than any president before him, Obama pledged to change the political culture that has fueled the influence of lobbyists. He barred recent lobbyists from joining his administration and banned them from advisory boards throughout the executive branch. The president went so far as to forbid what had been staples of political interaction — federal employees could no longer accept free admission to receptions and conferences sponsored by lobbying groups.
“A lot of folks,” Obama said last month, “see the amounts of money that are being spent and the special interests that dominate and the lobbyists that always have access, and they say to themselves, maybe I don’t count.”
The White House visitor records make it clear that Obama’s senior officials are granting that access to some of K Street’s most influential representatives. In many cases, those lobbyists have long-standing connections to the president or his aides. Republican lobbyists coming to visit are rare, while Democratic lobbyists are common, whether they are representing corporate clients or liberal causes.
Obama has also shown a willingness to give special access in exchange for campaign contributions. Though not on the scale of the unlimited excesses of conservative super-PACs, contributors to Obama’s reelection campaign have been given extra access to the president and have regularly shown up the White House for meetings with top presidential aides to discuss policies to benefit their interests.
But by far the most influential development to affect the current presidential campaign and other races across the country is super-PACs, allowing more money than ever before to flow into any election where the wealthy and corporate interests have a stake (that would be most of them…). Campaign finance advocates and political experts see the influx of super-PACs as having a transformational impact on races themselves, changing the dynamics of who is calling the shots and what gets broadcast to voters.
Instead of more sober and seasoned campaign managers or advisers tied directly to the candidate being in charge of advertising and strategy, the majority of contributions flowing to super-PACs has put these organizations at the fore of ad buys and tactics.
With wealthy donors mostly interested in personal gain and private profits from their investment in outside groups, the material produced by super-PACs and others is often harmful to individual candidates and campaigns, with no filter and little restrictions on the content and amount of money partisan financiers can plow into them.
The intensifying flood of uncapped donations to outside political groups is transforming not just campaigns but the entire business of politics.
Once seasonal affairs, campaigns from the presidential race down to House contests are becoming longer and more intense, driven by deep-pocketed donors eager to see incumbents pummeled throughout the political cycle. Decisions about attack ads and negative campaigning that once weighed on candidates are now made by consultants and donors with little or no accountability to the public.
And for a growing number of strategists and operatives in both parties, the very nature of what it means to work in politics has shifted. Once wedded to the careers and aims of individual candidates, they are now driven by the agendas of the big donors who finance outside spending.
Amid the first presidential campaign since the Supreme Court opened the door for “super PACs” and unlimited campaign spending, it is still unclear how voters will respond. But the political professionals who make a living from the billions of dollars spent each cycle on campaigns are quickly embracing the shift.
“I think at the end of the day it has to do with money,” said Matt Mackowiak, a Republican consultant who works with Let Freedom Ring, a group set to spend $20 million on political advertising this year. “If you’re a top consultant today, you’d much rather have a presidential super PAC than a presidential campaign.”
In the insular but fast-growing world of super PACs and other independent outfits, there are no cranky candidates, no scheduling conflicts, no bitter strategy debates with rival advisers. There are only wealthy donors and the consultants vying to oblige them.
With more than two years having passed since Citizens United, many activists and political insiders are sounding serious warning signs of what the fallout from the Supreme Court’s controversial ruling has wrought. One expert says the rise of super-PACs means that the “doomsday scenario” that some predicted after Citizens United “is coming true.”