It didn’t take long for Ed Markey to drag Karl Rove and the Koch brothers — the Democrats’ favorite whipping boys — into the Bay State’s special Senate election.
On primary night, Markey accused Gabriel Gomez, his Republican rival, of welcoming the big, bad wolves of conservative activism into Massachusetts. By refusing to take “the people’s pledge” and limit outside funding, Markey said Gomez would guarantee an election polluted by “special interest, undisclosed, unlimited money from around the rest of our country.”
For all his moral outrage about secret money being funneled into his opponent’s campaign, Markey’s real goal is to keep the financial advantage on the Democratic side. As the Globe reported last January, he entered the race with a $3.1 million war chest, much of it funded by the telecommunications and media industries, which he helps regulate as chairman of a powerful congressional committee. According to a memo circulated by the National Republican Senatorial Committee, Markey received more than $1 million from outside groups during the 2013 Senate primary campaign, more than any other primary candidate.
Markey and Stephen Lynch, his Democratic primary opponent, also signed “the people’s pledge,” which is supposed to discourage outside groups from bankrolling attack ads. But the pledge didn’t stop California billionaire Thomas F. Steyer from spending $400,000 to fly a plane with a banner reading “Steve Lynch for Oil Evil Empire” over Fenway Park and other locales.
It’s a cliché, but money is the mother’s milk of politics, and more of it than ever before is sloshing around campaigns. Whether the milk is curdled or not depends on a person’s partisan tastes. To Democrats, Rove and the Koch brothers are evildoers. To Republicans, the same honor goes to liberal billionaire George Soros, who once said that removing George W. Bush as president was “the central focus of my life.” During the 2004 election, Soros devoted at least $23 million to that losing cause.
If there’s a lesson in that, it’s that while every candidate fears a well-funded opponent, money doesn’t guarantee victory. As President Obama observed during his gig at last week’s White House Correspondents Dinner, “Do you know that Sheldon Adelson spent $100 million of his own money on negative ads? You have to really dislike me to spend that kind of money.” Adelson would have been better off, joked the president, if he offered to pay Obama not to run again.
As for Rove, his super PAC, called American Crossroads, raised $300 million during the 2012 election cycle. Not only did its chief beneficiary, Mitt Romney, lose, so did almost every candidate American Crossroads got behind.
Given that track record, Markey might consider extending a special invitation to Rove to parachute into this Senate race. But Massachusetts is definitely unfriendly territory for the former Bush White House adviser. In early April, when Rove spoke to an audience on the University of Massachusetts Amherst campus, he was interrupted by protestors who called him a “terrorist” and said he was “responsible for the death of millions of people.” The week before the primary, Markey accused his Democratic opponent of “Karl Rove-ian” tactics, after Lynch asked him to explain some of his national security votes.
That kind of hyperbole aside, Rove’s ability to bundle millions of dollars from undisclosed donors and funnel them into attack ads is the unpleasant outcome of the Supreme Court’s decision in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission. The court ruled that corporations — along with labor unions — have First Amendment rights; political advertising is one way to express them. For now, it’s the law of the land. Running against it, as Markey is doing, is an obvious play to his Democratic base.
Of course, it’s fair to scrutinize the money behind Gomez; up until now, it was mostly his own. According to the Globe, he put $900,000 on his primary campaign, much of it for TV advertising designed to introduce a political neophyte to the public.
It’s also fair to scrutinize the money behind Markey. During the primary, much of it came from labor unions, the League of Conservation Voters, and abortion rights groups like NARAL and Planned Parenthood. Like Rove and the Koch brothers, they have their own special interest in sending one particular candidate to Washington.Joan Vennochi can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @Joan_Vennochi.