The rise in importance of these groups in electioneering has been accelerating for some time, in particular after the passage of McCain-Feingold, with its ban on soft-money donations to the parties and its opening up of the loophole that allowed the creation of 527s. Now comes Citizens United—which allows unlimited direct spending on candidate-centric ads and other communications by corporations, unions, and nonprofits—and it appears that our politics are hurtling rapidly down the road toward near-total privatization.
“Parties have always done three things: money, messaging, and mobilization,” says Ginsberg. “All three of those are now going to end up being done by special-interest groups. You’ve already got the Emily’s List–ActBlue model for raising money for candidates and finding them donors, which is far more efficient than what the parties can do. In terms of messaging, whether it’s American Crossroads or MoveOn, there’s going to be a huge amount of messaging done by outside groups. And in terms of mobilization, the unwritten reality of Citizens United is that now corporations and unions can do get-out-the-vote activities beyond just their members, which is what they were limited to before.”
Few sane people of any ideological stripe find this scenario comforting, and many consider it a nightmare in the making. Conservatives tend to want to get rid of McCain-Feingold, allowing parties and candidates to raise enough money to offset the effect of all the special-interest dollars flooding into the system. Liberals, by contrast, tend to want to overturn (or severely limit the effect of) Citizens United. And, indeed, there is talk of trying to accomplish that before November—though the likelihood of Democrats’ wanting to press hard on legislation that would be portrayed, fairly or not, as an incumbent-protection measure strikes me as close to nil.
In the long run, it’s impossible to say which party would gain the advantage from the onrushing privatization of politics. But in the short run, the smartest Republicans admit that Democrats are better positioned to take advantage of the new playing field. For one thing, the party has better, larger, and more sophisticated outside groups on its side—from the Democracy Alliance to the labor unions—than Republicans do on theirs. For another, the DNC and its allies are doing a much better job at the tasks that remain the province of the parties than the RNC is.
Ginsberg points to three distinct areas where Steele and his people appear to be in danger of falling short: developing a ground game (“they’ve cut the budget like maniacs”); pumping money into the congressional campaign committees to put more seats in play (“instead, we’re going to wind up leaving more than we need to on the table”); and the crucial work on this year’s post-Census redistricting (“the Democrats are in a really good place, and the RNC is letting everyone down—they’re nowhere”).
Which, of course, brings us back to Steele. Nobody doubts that Republicans are poised to pick up a bunch of seats in this fall’s elections. The question is whether those gains will be game-changing, and even historic, or fall short of the exalted expectations that the party and much of the punditocracy have for them.
The answer will turn on much larger national factors than Steele’s stewardship of the RNC, to be sure. Yet as Castellanos suggests, little things on the margins can mean the difference between a good year and a great year—and on those little things, Steele is failing as miserably and flailing as wildly as he is making a fool of himself on the big stage. And by driving his donors away from the RNC and toward the private groups that are waiting to take up the slack left by his maladroit leadership, he is quickening the process of the RNC’s marginalization—hastening the arrival of its future status as an organization whose main responsibility is throwing a nominating convention every four years.
When Steele was chosen as RNC chair, the selection was hailed as historic. And, hey, whaddaya know, it’s shaping up to be just that. Historically awful.