“All politics is local,” former Speaker of the House Tip O’Neill use to say all the time.
Its an adage as old as American politics. Everything begins with the local voters who put you in office, and ends with the movers and shakers who return your loyalty. So it doesn’t really matter what the outsiders think. If you’ve got a sound local power base back home, you’re good to go.
Until now, thanks to the infamous 2010 Supreme Court case Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission.
Citizens United tilted the playing filed in many ways. One aspect of the decision that has outraged many is the notion that corporations are now entitled to constitutional protections of speech that were designed for people, not institutions. It’s a deep affront to our republic.
But the practical developments emerging from the case are still unfolding have the potential to reshape American politics, as the current race in Nebraska for a U.S. Senate seats is demonstrating.
When Blue Dog Democrat and former Nebraska Governor Ben Nelson announced that he was retiring from the Senate after two terms, Republicans smelled an opportunity. Though often misunderstood by outsiders as a thoroughly red state, Nerbaska only bends that way consistently in presidential election. In fact, both parties are generally competitive in statewide elections.
The Democrats quickly saddled up with Bob Kerrey, himself a former Nebraska governor and U.S. senator. For Republicans, it seemed likely to come down to two well-established state politicians with strong local power bases: State Treasurer Don Stenberg, and State Attorney General Jon Bruning. Both are longtime fixtures in Nebraska politics and hail from the more populous eastern part of the state. The primary was Tuesday, and the winner was . . . neither of them.
In a development that The Lincoln Journal Star newspaper is calling “unprecedented,” and is now getting national media coverage, the Republican nomination was captured by Deb Fischer, a far lesser known state legislator from the little western town of Valentine.
It’s not much of an overstatement to say that coming into the race, Fischer was almost a nobody. And while her local power base along the nether reaches of the South Dakota state border might be loyal, it’s also quite small and nascent compared to those of Stenberg and Bruning. Which is why only ten days before the election she was well out of the race, as Bruning seemed to be destined for a victory.
But not so fast, thanks to Citizens United.
Fischer was able to overtake the bigger dogs with substantial help from out of state. First Sarah Palin offered an endorsement. But more importantly, Joe Ricketts, the stunningly rich founder of Ameritrade, ponied up the money. Citizens United now allows unaffiliated political action committees, known as Super PACs, to spend as much as they like. So Ricketts’ organization poured a quarter of a million dollars into the race, launching a massive TV blitz on Fischer’s behalf. It helped secure her the come from behind win, and also put this senatorial election on track to be by far the most expensive in Nebraska’s history.
So is this just another story, one we’ve seen a lot of over the last few years, where rich people go on a spending spree to prop up an ultra-conservative Republican nominee at the expense of a more moderate and established one? Is this just the demise of Rhode Island’s Lincoln Chafee, Delaware’s Mike Castle, and most recently Indiana’s Dick Lugar, all over again?
No, because there’s more to it than that. In truth, Fischer’s politics really aren’t all that different from Bruning’s. This wasn’t conservative vs. moderate. It was just two conservatives. So why the push? Why the national endorsement and money?
Many of the late ads focused on Bruning’s character, claiming he’s on the take and, without any sense of irony whatsoever, showing him literally being showered in money. But I find it hard to believe that Ricketts would spend all that money at the last minute to support a distant underdog whose platform isn’t all that different from the presumptive nominee just because of “character issues.”
Perhaps it’s precisely because Fischer was a vulnerable version of Bruning and Stenberg that that she was so appealing to Ricketts and Palin. Perhaps it’s because Bruning and Stenberg had very strong local power bases propelling them, and Fischer did not, that they decided to pluck her from relative obscurity. Palin and Ricketts couldn’t really do much for Bruning or Stenberg. But they could do everything for Fischer, transforming her from a distant also-ran into the party’s new candidate for the United States Senate.
In a midnight phone call to The Journal Star after claiming the nomination, Fischer had the temerity to give credit to her “great grassroots volunteers, friends and family.”
While she may love them and vice versa, the cold truth is, they did not put her where she is in this race, they’re not going to be enough for her to overcome the old war horse Bob Kerry, and they’re not going to be the ones she has to answer to first and foremost if she somehow makes it to the United States Senate.
We’ll see who has their hands out. Because nothin’s for free in this life, and all politics ain’t local anymore.
Akim Reinhardt lived in Nebraska for five years before moving to Maryland in 2001. He blogs regularly at The Public Professor.
UPDATE: Thursday's New York Times features an exposé of a Ricketts-funded Super PAC called Character Matters, which is preparing to jump into the presidential race. Apparently, Barack Obama is going to feel Joe Bruner's pain, as Ricketts gears up to spend $10 million smearing the president for his Muslim middle name and his former association with Chicago pastor Jeremiah Wright. The Super PAC's proposal also calls for the specific hiring of an “extremely literate conservative African-American” as their spokesman."
Character Matters PAC's plan seems to have been designed by Fred Davis, who has previously worked as a strategist for George W. Bush, John McCain and most recently Jon Huntsman. Apparently, Davis and his colleagues are still upset that McCain would not let them pound on the Wright connection back in 2008. They now refer to him as a "crusty old politician" who was "often confused."
Ironically, daughter Laura Ricketts is one of Obama's top campaign contributors. That should make for a fun Thanksgiving.