by Jane Mayer
DARK MONEY LOOSES BUT WINS
In the final stretch of the campaign, it became clear that the presidential race was so close that the outcome would likely depend on voter turnout. Nowhere was this truer than in the state of Ohio, without which Romney couldn't rack up enough electoral votes to win. Here, too, the Kochs and other conservative philanthropists played a little-detected role.
Controversy about allegations of voter fraud had built to a boiling point all summer. Each side accused the other of dirty tricks, further poisoning and polarizing the political process. The chairman of the Republican National Committee, Reince Priebus, accused Democrats of "standing up for fraud—presumably because ending it would disenfranchise at least two of its core constituencies: the deceased and double voters."
Democrats accused Republicans of deliberately reviving racist voter suppression tactics predating the civil rights movement. Bill Clinton declared, "It's the most determined effort to limit the franchise since we got rid of the poll tax and all the other Jim Crow burdens on voting."
Impartial experts, meanwhile, like Richard Hasen, a professor of election law at the University of California in Irvine, regarded the allegations of fraud as the real fraud. After searching in vain to find a single case since 1980 when "an election outcome could plausibly have turned on voter impersonation fraud," he concluded the problem was a "myth."
Nonetheless, the alarmism resulted in legislative initiatives aimed at requiring voters to produce official photo IDs in thirty-seven states between 2011 and 2012. It also led to a national outbreak of mysterious citizen watchdog groups calling for crackdowns on election fraud.
One such group, the Ohio Voter Integrity Project, policed voter rolls for "irregularities" and then persuaded local election authorities to send summonses to suspect voters requiring them to prove their legitimacy at public hearings. Teresa Sharp, a fifty-three-year-old lifelong Democrat from the outskirts of Cincinnati, who received one such summons, discovered at the hearing that the self-appointed watchdog group had mistaken her address for a vacant lot. "My first thought," recalled Sharp, who is African-American, "was, Oh, no! They ain't messing with us poor black folks! Who is challenging my right to vote?"
The national outbreak of fear over voter fraud appeared a spontaneous grassroots movement, but beneath the surface there was a money trail that led back to the usual deep-pocketed right-wing donors. To target Sharp, for instance, the Ohio Voter Integrity Project had relied on software supplied by a national nonprofit, True the Vote, which itself was supported in different ways by the Bradley Foundation, the Heritage Foundation, and Americans for Prosperity.
True the Vote described itself as a nonprofit organization, created "by citizens for citizens," that aimed to protect "the rights of legitimate voters, regardless of their political party." But its founder, Catherine Engelbrecht, a Houston Tea Party activist, was guided by Hans von Spakovsky, a Republican lawyer and fellow at the Heritage Foundation who had made a career of challenging liberal voting rights reforms. Heritage had an ugly history on the issue. The think tanks founder, Paul Weyrich, had openly admitted, "I don't want everybody to vote." In 1980, he told supporters, "As a matter of fact our leverage in elections quite candidly goes up as the voting populace goes down."
Spakovsky's most recent book, Who's Counting?, which was filled with incendiary claims about voter fraud, was published by Encounter Books, a Bradley Foundation grantee, and co-authored by John Fund, another Heritage Foundation fellow. True the Vote, meanwhile, had received Bradley Foundation funds. Americans for Prosperity also gave the organization and the voter fraud issue a boost by featuring both Fund and Engelbrecht at its political events.
If the aim was to intimidate voters like Sharp, though, in her case, it backfired. When her name was called at the hearing, Sharp, who was accompanied by six other members of her family, walked to the front, slammed her purse and papers on the table, and asked, "Why are you all harassing me?" Later she said, "It was like a kangaroo court. There were, like, ninety-four people being challenged, and my family and I were the only ones contesting it! I looked around. The board members and the stenographer, they were all white people. The lady bringing the challenge—she was white." Sharp concluded, "I think they want to stop as many black people as they can from voting."
On Election Day, to the surprise of Romney and his backers, Democratic voters turned out in far bigger numbers than the Republicans expected. The Koch network had spent an astounding $407 million at a minimum, most of it from invisible donors. The operatives running the enterprise believed they were able to accurately anticipate how the vote would go, and right until the polls closed on November 6, they, like the Romney team, were convinced victory was at hand.
Sean Noble, who was already under a cloud because of the California campaign-finance scandal, was so sure of success that on Election Day he sent out a memo to the donors telling them that soon the rest of the country would know the good news that they already did, which was that Romney would be the next president. But around 4:30 that afternoon, Frank Luntz called. He said the exit polls didn't look right. But neither Noble nor anyone else among the big donor groups believed it yet.
At 11:12 p.m., NBC News called Ohio for Obama, projecting him as the elections winner. When Fox News followed suit, Karl Rove, who was a Fox News analyst as well as the founder of the American Crossroads independent campaign operation, threw a fit on the air. He had talked the rich into contributing $117 million to his super PAC, and many, many more millions in dark money, and had confidently assured them of a historic victory. It was "premature" for Fox to call the race, he insisted. Fox's number crunchers, however, held their ground. Romney had lost.
"What happened? We had bad data," a Koch insider conceded after it was over. They had counted on an electorate less diverse than the one that swept Obama into office in 2008. Instead, the 2012 voters were even more diverse. While the proportion of the electorate that was white and old fell, the participation by Hispanic, female, and young voters rose. Black voters, meanwhile, held steady, casting an overwhelming 93 percent of their votes for Obama. The America that the conservative donors were counting on was out of touch with the reality.
In a postelection phone call to his biggest contributors, Romney explained it a little differently. The problem, he said, was that Obama had in essence bribed supporters with government services. "What the president's campaign did was focus on certain members of his base coalition, give them extraordinary financial gifts from the government, and then work very aggressively to turn them out to vote."
Obama chuckled upon hearing of Romney's analysis. "He must have really meant that 47 percent thing," he told his aides.
In Bentonville, Arkansas, a few days later, Senator John McCains private cell phone interrupted a meeting with Walmart's top executives by mechanically announcing the name of a caller trying to reach him. "Mitt Romney!" it squawked. "Mitt Romney!" Looking a little startled, McCain fished the phone out of his pocket and answered, rising to leave the room so that he could speak in privacy. When McCain returned, he explained to the curious executives that Romney had wanted advice on how to cope with losing the presidency. "I told him the first time, I did it all wrong," McCain related. "My wife talked me into taking a vacation in Tahiti. Worst G…dam mistake I ever made. The second time," he went on, "I just went right back to work. It was fine. I told him, 'Go back to work.'" The only problem, someone cracked, was that Romney, like those loafers in the 47 percent, had no job.
Commentators leaped to the conclusion that 2012 proved that money had little or no influence on elections. Politico changed the heading for a series it had been running on money in politics from "The Billion-Dollar Buy" to "The Billion-Dollar Bust?" With a final tally of approximately $7 billion in traceable spending on the presidential and congressional campaigns, it was the most expensive election in American history by far. One donor alone, Sheldon Adelson, who had vowed to spend "as much as it takes," had dumped nearly $150 million, $92 million of which was disclosed, and had still come up short. Approximately $15 million of that had reportedly gone to the Kochs' group, Americans for Prosperity.
All in all, super PACs and independent groups that could take unlimited contributions had spent a staggering $2.5 billion and, it seemed, changed nothing. Obama would remain in the White House, the Democrats would continue to dominate the Senate, and Republicans would continue to control the House.
Defeat on this scale did not sit well with the Kochs or their donors.
"The donors were livid," recalls one adviser. Disappointed but ever persistent and methodical, Charles Koch sent out an e-mail to his network informing them that the next donor seminar would be postponed from January until April while he and his operatives analyzed what went wrong. "Our goal of advancing a free and prosperous America is even more difficult than we envisioned, but it is essential that we continue, rather than abandon, this struggle," he wrote.
The media's box score approach to politics, however, overlooked the many more subtle ways that money had bought influence.
Hugely wealthy radicals on the right hadn't won the White House, but they had altered the nature of American democracy. They had privatized much of the public campaign process and dominated the agenda of one of the country's two major political parties. David Koch, in fact, attended the Republican National Convention as an alternate delegate, a sign of how much the party had changed. (Arguably he had changed too. At the convention, he gave an interview supporting gay marriage, demonstrating that on this issue he had come far from the day when he had participated in the scheme to blackmail his brother. The Kochs did not, however, put their financial clout behind promoting gay marriage, and David's private view had no visible influence on the Party.)
On a raft of other issues, though, including climate change, tax policy, entitlement spending, and undisclosed campaign contributions— which the Republican Party platform now embraced in a reversal from the past—the preferences of the Kochs and their political "partners" had prevailed.
There was no more talk of strengthening the Clean Air Act, mockery of "Voodoo Economics," support for "compassionate conservatism," or expanding Medicare drug coverage, as there had been under the Bush presidencies. Government was a force for evil, not public good.
Contrary to predictions, the Citizens United decision hadn't triggered a tidal wave of corporate political spending. Instead, it had empowered a few extraordinarily rich individuals with extreme and often self-serving agendas.
As the nonpartisan Sunlight Foundation concluded in a postelection analysis, the superrich had become the country's political gatekeepers. "One ten-thousandth" of America's population, or "1% of the 1%," was "shaping the limits of acceptable discourse, one conversation at a time."
Obama won, but he had few illusions that he had vanquished big money. "I'm an incumbent president who already had this huge network of support all across the country and millions of donors," he told a few supporters. It had enabled him to, as he put it, "match whatever check the Koch brothers want to write." But, he warned, "I'm not sure that the next candidate after me is going to be able to compete in that same way." Messina too was worried. "I think they erred badly with their strategy," he said. "But I don't think they're going to make the same mistake twice."
AND SO BIG DARK MONEY WILL KEEP GOING, TO SWAY AND TURN POLITICAL MINDS, TO THEIR GOALS, TO THEIR AGENDA, OF NO-GOVERNMENT - FREEDOM AND LIBERTY TO HAVE THINGS WITHOUT GOVERNMENT LAWS AND REGULATIONS TO HINDER THEIR BILLIONS OF DOLLARS LIFE-STYLE. TO THEM IT'S A FUN GAME TO PLAY WITH THEIR MONEY; FOR GOODNESS SAKE DO NOT SUGGEST THEY GIVE HUNDREDS OF MILLIONS OF DOLLARS TO THE POOR AND THE NEEDY, AND TRUE CAUSES TO MAKE OUR PLANET A BETTER AND HEALTHIER PLACE.
ONE MORE REASON FOR US TO PRAY "THY KINGDOM COME, THY WILL BE DONE ON E ARTH AS IT IS IN HEAVEN."