the national interest

How Citizens United Created Newt

US gaming tycoon Sheldon Adelson gestures during a press conference at the Marina Bay Sands complex in Singapore on June 23, 2010.
Sheldon Adelson, Newt’s sugar daddy. Photo: Roslan Rahman/AFP/Getty Images

The Republican elite is justifiably terrified at the prospect of Newt Gingrich capturing the nomination. Gingrich, as I’ve argued, is riding the wave of revulsion and contempt for President Obama that this same Establishment has stoked for three years. But his campaign is also blowback to the party Establishment in another, more mechanical way. His campaign is surviving entirely as a result of the Citizens United ruling, decried by liberals and celebrated by conservatives, which allows unlimited campaign expenditures, as long as they’re not coordinated with campaigns.

Money is the primary mechanism that parties use to herd voters toward the choices the elites would prefer them to make. The nomination of George W. Bush offers a classic example. Bush and his network had organized so many Republicans to donate so much money that the contest was essentially over well before a vote had been cast. The Bush fund-raising network didn’t involve a handful of billionaires in a room. It required thousands of fairly affluent people working together.

In 2000, the Bush network froze challenger John McCain out of party fund-raising networks. Now, the GOP is trying to do this again on behalf of Romney:

If Gingrich does win, veteran GOP strategists tell CNN to expect pressure on Senate Minority Leaders Mitch McConnell, House Speaker John Boehner and other Republican leaders to call key GOP donors and ask them not to contribute to Gingrich’s campaign.

Ten years ago, this sort of edict would have suffocated Gingrich. But under the present system, Gingrich can simply have a single extremely wealthy supporter, Sheldon Adelson, write a series of $5 million checks. “Winning Our Future” is Gingrich’s “independent” PAC, and it’s an entire shadow campaign, complete with a ground operation in addition to advertising. Adelson’s money isn’t enough for Gingrich to attain parity with Romney – he’s probably being outspent at least two to one – but it is keeping him alive.

Conservatives may not care much about the good-government problems that this scenario raises. (I care! Imagine a sitting President trying to make a fair judgment about a policy decision impacting the businessman who single-handedly financed his entire election.) But they may come to care about the problems arising from a system that now allows one very, very rich man with very, very poor political instincts to overturn their own best laid plans.

How Citizens United Created Newt