How Dark Money Boomeranged on the GOP

Mitt Romney greets audience members during his 2012 presidential campaign at the airport in Lynchburg, Virginia November 5, 2012. There was so much money sloshing around in the 2012 Republican primary that the presumptive nominee, Romney, couldn’t narrow the field until late May. Brian Snyder/Reuters

When the political history of the Obama years is written, one important element will be how conservative overreach led to the collapse of the Republican Party. And it all started with a Supreme Court case that proved to be poison Republicans eagerly swallowed, thinking it was cake.

That January 2010 ruling was the infamous Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, which declared that associations of people (read: rich folk and businesses) have free speech rights, and that not-for-profit entities are constitutionally allowed to collect and spend as much money as they want for political purposes, so long as they don't coordinate those efforts with their candidates. For a bunch of purported constitutional literalists, the decision was nonsense—the conservatives on the court granted First Amendment rights to corporations, a legal construct never mentioned by the Founding Fathers. In fact, the 200 or so U.S. corporations that existed by 1800 were chartered by the states and forbidden from participating in politics, and if they engaged in any activities deemed inappropriate, they could have been immediately dissolved.

But the conservative justices made up a different history, reading into the Constitution what they wanted to find rather than what the founders clearly intended. And what they "discovered" was that money is speech and corporations are people, with the same constitutional rights of free expression as any human.

That created a new political world. Billionaires and their companies could now anonymously dump unlimited cash into political organizations known as super PACs, 501(c)4s and 527s, with one restriction: The group couldn't coordinate its efforts with the campaign it supported. So an advertisement that said "Vote for Joe" and was paid for by a cash-laden outside entity was OK, so long as it didn't ask Joe for permission.

Following the ruling, most conservatives fell over in delight, believing that their partners in crime on the Supreme Court—by twisting the Constitution beyond recognition—had just delivered a glorious present to the Republican Party. The decision "struck a blow for the First Amendment,'' said Republican Senator Mitch McConnell. "The floodgates for money will obviously be opened by the court's decision,'' said Ed Rollins, a prominent Republican political consultant.

But for all their excited panting, Republicans failed to consider one important fact: Not all millionaires and billionaires support the same things. Establishment Republicans focus on lower taxes and decreased government regulation. Evangelical conservatives want to end abortion, gay marriage and instill Christian values in schools. Then there are those focused on single issues—fossil fuels development, support of Israel, tearing down consumer financial protections. With Citizens United, these different moneyed interests could each become major players in the political process by writing a check, forcing candidates to make pilgrimages to kiss the rings of billionaires. GOP leaders were unaware of the coming insidious consequences in this new political landscape: The party was about to split into well-financed factions; a candidate who otherwise would never consider running for the Republican presidential nomination could be transformed into a contender with one billionaire's backing.

The numbers tell the tale. Before Citizens United, the Republican nomination process was fairly predictable. Candidates would test the waters; only a few would receive enough in contributions to keep their campaigns going; everyone else would quickly drop out. In 2000, for example, out of 12 GOP candidates, seven withdrew before the primaries because they couldn't raise enough money, having brought in only between $1.7 million and $5 million, according to Democracy in Action, a political analysis group run through George Washington University. Of the remaining five, one—Steve Forbes, the multimillionaire businessman—was largely self-financed, while two others were almost exclusively supported by evangelical and anti-abortion activists, who through their campaign organizations raised contributions just over $7.5 million that they could directly control. The only two financially viable candidates, former Texas Governor George W. Bush and Senator John McCain, brought in $91 million and $28 million, respectively, during the primary season. The result? Only Bush and McCain won any electoral contests. The total amount contributed by political action committees to every candidate—Republican and Democrat—was just $2.8 million in the primary season.

Republican presidential front runner Donald Trump speaks to supporters during a campaign rally in Warren, Michigan, March 4. Instead of chasing PAC money, Trump took his case straight to the people and instantly became the populist candidate. Carlos Barria/Reuters

With Bush running for re-election in 2004, the next competitive primary season was 2008, and the story was the same. Twelve GOP candidates toed the starting line. Four withdrew before the primaries, and three more dropped out in the first month of the election year, all for lack of funds. Another three dropped out soon after for the same reasons. McCain had raised about $54 million by the time he secured the nomination on April 15. And again, PACs contributed little in the primaries.

Then came 2012, the first primary season after the Citizens United decision, and with it, one of the most ridiculous sights in political history: Republican debates with so many candidates that the stage seemed to groan under their weight. Unlike in the past, no one needed to go hat in hand to hundreds or thousands of potential donors—they just needed backing from one of those not-for-profit entities supported by a few billionaires.

With money sloshing around inside and outside of every campaign, no one dropped out before the primaries. Seventeen candidates appeared on at least two Republican primary ballots. Mitt Romney did not secure enough delegates to win the nomination until almost June because so many candidates had the outside money to keep going, and they kept cutting into the former Massachusetts governor's totals. At least 49 super PACs supported individual candidates, including businessman Herman Cain, former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich, Texas Governor Rick Perry, former Senator Rick Santorum and many others, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. Every time Romney seemed on the verge of securing the nomination, someone else supported by a few billionaires would become the flavor of the week to compete with him. For example, Gingrich's campaign wouldn't die because one billionaire, casino mogul Sheldon Adelson, backed him with $15 million in outside expenditures.

After its 2012 loss in the general election, the Republican Party came to the wrong conclusion that its problem had been the primary race had lasted too long, making it too easy for longshot candidates to drag out the race. So, in a dreadful political error, the party decided to shorten its primary schedule so that one candidate could grab enough delegates to win quickly.

Unfortunately for the Republicans, the Citizens United problem may well destroy the party this election cycle. There were once again 17 presidential candidates at the start of the race, all of them major politicians and businesspeople, and all but a few backed by many millions of dollars from super PACs and other outside groups. Even former Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal, who ranked next to nothing in the polls, received $4.5 million in support from outside entities, compared with $1.4 million contributed to him the old-fashioned way—real people giving money. Perry got $15 million in outside backing this time thanks to Citizens United but could only raise $1.4 million in traditional campaign contributions. Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker received $24 million in independent backing (but only $8 million from individual contributions), New Jersey Governor Chris Christie got $23 million (compared with $8 million), and former Florida Governor Jeb Bush received $118.7 million (compared with $33.5 million), numbers that led establishment Republicans to deem him the presumptive nominee.

And all that again left the party in a situation in which Republican voters could not coalesce around a single candidate. There were too many to choose from.

No one came close to a majority in the early polls, meaning a candidate could become the front-runner with a plurality much smaller than historically required. Thus, with the establishment candidates divvying up the support of traditional Republican voters into small slivers, Donald Trump—the only candidate receiving almost no support from independent groups created by Citizens United—is marching toward the nomination. And party leaders seem incapable of understanding what happened.

Now, with many Republican politicians wailing that a Trump nomination could destroy the party, perhaps someone will realize that the splintering of the GOP is in part traceable to Citizens United. With the real consequences starting to become apparent and unavoidable, with the Republican Party being decimated by the decision, perhaps the Democrats should drop their multiyear effort to pass laws that would mitigate the court's ruling. Instead, they should wait until the Republicans come knocking on their doors seeking campaign finance reform. And then make them beg.