COMMENTARY: Liberals have it wrong on campaign spending

The 2018 election is already upon us. Americans can expect an expensive one.

Outside groups have spent tens of millions on Senate and House races already. A projected $3 billion will be spent on political advertisements through 2018.

And there’s nothing wrong with that. “Money in politics” — long vilified by liberal commentators — simply translates to more information with which voters make decisions. This means more ads, more town halls, and more political discussion — the foundation of American democracy. Our society flourishes when we are exposed to more speech and can freely associate with more political groups, not fewer.

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Unfortunately, the mainstream media is already fearmongering, churning out ominous phrases like “dark money” and “assault on transparency.” A recent New York Times headline reads: “American democracy is drowning in money.” The Times praises France’s restrictive system, where paid political advertising on television is prohibited and campaign contributions are strictly limited. The Huffington Post breathlessly warns readers: “Outside financiers are already beginning to wield their influence.” Esquire sensationalized that “dark money invades our politics.”

In truth, political donors are rarely, if ever, boogeymen or foreign invaders. They are almost always Americans exercising their rights to free speech and free association. Why should the heavy hands of Big Government and the mainstream media stop any American from spending their own money on campaigns, super PACs, or any organization they want?

Liberal groups are now following the liberal media's lead. End Citizens United (ECU), a left-wing super PAC, plans to spend $35 billion on the 2018 election — up from $25 million in 2016. ECU hopes to make anti-speech campaign finance reform a top issue, claiming "it has taken on a new meaning and a new importance in voters' everyday lives."

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A super PAC spending $35 million to restrict political spending could use a heavy dose of self-awareness. This liberal campaign finance crusade isn’t really about getting money out of politics; it’s about getting the wrong money out of politics — restricting conservative political spending they disagree with.

Ironically ECU’s own ability to engage in meaningful political speech — which they seek to deny others—is impossible without lots of money. Their $35 million budget is essential to run TV ads, organize events, and pay staff and vendors who make ECU’s political expression possible.

The best ideas reach critical mass not only on their merits, but because their merits are widely communicated. This costs money — lots of it. But all that money does is insert those ideas into our political discussion. It is always up to individual Americans to decide for themselves which ideas they support and which they oppose. The anti-speech movement is grounded in a simple premise: Americans are too stupid to think for themselves — money will buy their vote.

This is not only insulting, but inaccurate. In 2016, Jeb Bush and his establishment allies spent $130 million on his presidential run. Roughly $84 million went for advertising — lots and lots of Jeb! ads. Another $18.3 million paid campaign staffers and consultants. We all know what happened: Jeb! failed to win a single state in the Republican primaries, never breaking fourth place or even 4 percent.

The three other candidates who round out the four largest super PACs in history — Mitt Romney in 2012 and Hillary Clinton and Marco Rubio in 2016 — all met the same fate. Meanwhile, President Trump cruised to primary victory after victory running almost no ads.

Most recently, former Alabama Supreme Court Justice Roy Moore defeated Sen. Luther Strange (R-Ala.)—an establishment incumbent — in the state’s Republican primary runoff with 57 percent of the vote. He was outspent 5-to-1.

Money doesn’t win elections. Votes do. If you don’t want to vote for someone, there isn’t enough money in the world to convince you otherwise.

Dan Backer is the founding attorney of a campaign finance and political law firm in Alexandria, Va. He has served as counsel to more than 100 campaigns, candidates, PACs, and political organizations.

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