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Citizens United Decision’s Real Victim: Incumbent Protection Plans

The primary defeat of an incumbent Republican member of Congress on Tuesday in Ohio has provoked some cries of dismay from the media and other sectors of the chattering classes. No one really cares about Rep. Jean Schmidt, who lost her race in her Cincinnati-area district to a relatively unknown podiatrist. But the reason for concern we are told is the fact that Schmidt was, in part, taken down by a GOP insurgency in which a super PAC played a significant role. That’s the conceit of a New York Times feature this morning about the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision that limited the federal government’s ability to restrict political speech in the form of election advertisements. A Houston-based political action committee called the Campaign for Primary Accountability spent about $200,000 to help defeat Schmidt and is taking an active role in other races where incumbents are being challenged.

The Times story attempts to paint such super PACs as tools of corporate interests, which fits in with the liberal critique of Citizens United as undermining democracy. But the real moral of this story is very different. By making it easier for groups to spend money promoting their ideas and/or opposing candidates, the court has destroyed the dynamic of most congressional races in which it was virtually impossible for challengers to raise enough money to take on entrenched incumbents. The victim of Citizens United isn’t democracy; it’s the laws and traditions of congressional politics that amounted to a near-foolproof incumbent protection plan.

As The Hill points out in their piece on Schmidt’s loss, ethics charges as well as her lack of sympathy for Tea Party principles made her vulnerable. Her opponent Brad Wenstrup was also a more formidable foe than was generally understood. But the infusion of cash into this race by the super PAC helped offset the otherwise enormous advantage that a sitting member of the House such as Schmidt has in such a primary. Incumbents are magnets for campaign contributions because everyone with a cause or an interest to be served by congressional legislation or influence wants to be in their good graces. There is no such incentive to help their challengers.

Incumbents always think there is something not quite kosher about anything that makes it easy for those out of power to hold them accountable. The mainstream media, which prizes its constitutionally protected right to exercise influence on elections, similarly looks askance at efforts to break up their monopoly on campaign information via campaign advertising. Citizens United has not injected more money into our political system since money has always been — and always will be — an integral part of campaigns. Though incumbents will always have great advantages, what the High Court has done is to tilt the playing field a little bit more towards the challengers. Though President Obama and the liberal chorus in which the Times plays a key role decries this change, what they are complaining about is more democracy, not less.


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