- The Washington Times - Thursday, August 2, 2012

The 2012 election cycle is projected to be the most expensive in United States history — much to the chagrin of campaign finance and good government advocacy groups wary of the increasing influence of special interests and cash in the American political system.

The Center for Responsive Politics, an independent group that tracks fundraising and spending in federal elections, predicts the 2012 presidential and congressional elections will cost $5.8 billion, up from $5.4 billion in 2008. The group did caution, however, that the surge in outside spending from third-party groups makes the end result difficult to predict.

The 2008 cycle was the first year the country broke the $5 billion mark, said Sheila Krumholz, the center’s executive director.

“More important than the total spent, the real difference this cycle is how great a portion of that money will come from purportedly independent, often secretive groups,” she added.

Outside spending will come to at least three-quarters of a billion dollars, the center predicted. That includes money from super PACs — which cannot coordinate with candidates or their committees but can raise and spend unlimited amounts of money — and nonprofit “issue” groups that cannot expressly advocate for or against a candidate and do not have to disclose their donors.

As of July 30, super PACs spent more than $165 million. The top 100 donors to super PACs gave $193 million out of $318 million raised at the end of June — more than 60 percent of the total.

The Center for Responsive Politics predicts that the presidential race will cost about $2.5 billion in money from the candidates, party committees and outside groups.

“It’s hard to draw a direct correlation between political contributions and debt,” said Robert L. Bixby, executive director of the Concord Coalition, a nonpartisan group that advocates fiscal responsibility. “However, it is disturbing to see so much money flooding to the campaigns, particularly the presidential campaign. People who spend that much money clearly have an agenda, and it usually isn’t fiscal sustainability.”

Thursday did mark the date when broadcast television stations in the top 50 media markets had to begin uploading information on television ad buys to an online database managed by the Federal Communications Commission, handing open government advocates a partial win.

It may amount to somewhatof a pyrrhic victory, though. The rules currently apply only to the four major networks — ABC, CBS, Fox and NBC — though they will affect all broadcasters starting in July 2014. But many of the country’s largest media markets fall in locations candidates are likely to ignore for the most part. New York, for example, is the country’s largest media market and Los Angeles is No. 2; both encompass solidly blue territory.

Ms. Krumholz worried that the dash for cash will create more quid pro quo situations.

“Congressional candidates, particularly incumbents, are raising more than they did at this point in the last two cycles,” she said. “However, super PACs or other outside spending groups are also raising big money and may now wield considerable power over candidates by threatening attacks without ever spending a dime.

“An arms race driven by the outside money keeps incumbents and challengers alike desperately seeking funds and even more grateful to the donors that come to their aid.”

Still, Megan Rhyne, executive director of the Virginia Coalition for Open Government, said the truth about the role of money in politics can be obscured by partisan rhetoric about the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision, which granted First Amendment rights to corporations and unions to make political donations, or “sugar daddies” who dump huge amounts of their own personal wealth into super PACs.

“To me, campaign finance is not a partisan issue. Money doesn’t always equal improper behavior,” she said. “I don’t think there’s universal agreement on whether it’s good, bad, indifferent, whether it matters. But we can’t talk about that because [it’s] ‘unions and corporations’ and outing people who just want to spend their money.

“I think that the discourse has gotten very difficult because everyone is kind of lumping everything together.”

• David Sherfinski can be reached at dsherfinski@washingtontimes.com.

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