Konopacki 11-2

If you're among the tens of thousands who have been repulsed by the more than two months of negative and misleading campaign advertising that has marked this fall's midterm elections, you can point a finger at the U.S. Supreme Court.

It's been 12 years since the court handed down its infamous campaign financing decision known as Citizens United, which opened the floodgates to the kind of relentless campaign spending that we're witnessing today.

The court's decision has resulted in a torrent of outside hard-to-follow money into candidates' campaigns, the formation of shadowy "super PACs" and even foreign intervention into some of our contests.

In the Jan. 21, 2010, Citizens United v. Federal Elections Commission ruling, the court by a 5-4 vote struck down portions of the once vaunted McCain-Feingold campaign law that placed limits on corporate independent expenditures and required donors' identities. The ruling declared that corporations have the same First Amendment rights as citizens.

The nonpartisan Campaign Legal Center in Washington, D.C., earlier this year explained it this way:

"The Court assumed that unlimited corporate campaign spending would pose no threat of corruption or the appearance of corruption because it would be 'independent.'

"However, it has become clear in the years since that voters are not getting enough information about the true sources of campaign spending and this supposedly independent spending in support of candidates or their campaigns is often intentionally coordinated (with the candidates).

"Thus, we are left with a campaign finance system where wealthy special interests can use unlimited secret spending to drown out the voices of everyday Americans."

But it's the law of the land now, and those super PACs, which can accept unlimited funds from corporations or individuals, have flourished and don't have to disclose where those funds come from.

Each election cycle has seen record-breaking amounts of spending. Campaign spending by corporations and other outside groups increased by nearly 900% between 2008 and 2016. In 2020, total election spending was $14.4 billion, up from $5.7 billion in 2018, and more than a billion dollars in dark money was spent.

Yes, there were attack ads and down-and-dirty campaigning long before Citizens United, but never at this volume. The decision has allowed big money to double down on the nastiness that's aimed at destroying the reputations of political opponents.

What the law authored by the late Sen. John McCain, an Arizona Republican,  and former Sen. Russ Feingold, a Wisconsin Democrat, attempted to do was put a lid on secret money and make it clear who was behind so-called independent advertising so the voters could judge for themselves.

The court negated that goal and now it's Katie bar the door when each election cycle rolls around. While TV stations pad their bottom lines, voters are treated to a barrage of slick advertising that does nothing to enlighten and everything to disparage.

The pity is it works. The negative advertising drowns out any discussion of the issues and replaces it with outlandish and often silly claims to paint opponents as being everything from un-American to just plain evil.

Nowhere has it been more pronounced than in this year's U.S. Senate race in Wisconsin.

Millions of dollars have been spent on behalf of incumbent Ron Johnson, who is locked in a tight race with Lt. Gov. Mandela Barnes, in an effort to save his seat and possibly gain a Republican Senate majority. While some of the individual donors are identified — billionaires Diane Hendricks of Beloit and Richard Uihlein of Mount Pleasant, for instance — many of the ads are financed by Super PACs whose contributors are hidden from the public.

One example of an independent spending group is an outfit that calls itself Restoration PAC, which insists that Barnes supports killing "preemies," infants born prior to 37 weeks of pregnancy. The fact-checking project PolitiFact labeled that claim "pants on fire" because there is absolutely no evidence the lieutenant governor ever made such a proposal. No matter, the ads continue.

It rated as "false" a claim by the Republican Senatorial Campaign Committee, another independent group, that Barnes supports stripping health care away from millions, a claim based on Barnes' support for Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders' Medicare for All plan.

But what appears to be the most damaging claims about Barnes is that he favors criminals over ordinary citizens and would release violent offenders from prison (something a U.S. senator has no power to do), concluding that Barnes, an African-American, is "different" and "dangerous." Johnson himself has made such claims, but independent spending groups have piled on with their own ads.

Again the advertising, thanks to unfettered amounts of money, runs nonstop.

To be fair, both sides sponsor attack ads that are half truths and contain unsubstantiated and refutable claims. They all speak volumes about the crude discourse of our politics in the 21st century, leaving the voting public woefully uninformed.

But as long as our high court believes that there should be no regulations to limit campaign dollars, allowing those with the money to have an outsized say in election results, be prepared for more of the same in the elections ahead.

Dave Zweifel is editor emeritus of The Capital Times. dzweifel@captimes.com, 608-252-6410 and on Twitter @DaveZweifel.  

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