Joe Ricketts, the founder of what became online brokerage TD Ameritrade Inc., plans to spend $10 million airing ads supporting GOP nominee Mitt Romney and another $2 million to help Republicans running for Congress. The ads will begin airing this week. . . .
In one critical way, the Ricketts effort represents a new approach. Unlike big-money donors who have given to individual campaigns or independent political groups, including super PACs, Mr. Ricketts is doing it alone. He is funding his own super PAC, called the Ending Spending Action Fund, hired staff and has personally overseen the strategy and ads, tying him very directly to the effort.
It’s not clear yet what the ads will say about President Obama. Last May, a leaked document revealed that Ricketts considered a $10 million anti-Obama campaign starring an “extremely literate conservative African-American” that would attack Obama’s supposed image as a “metrosexual, black Abe Lincoln,” but Ricketts ultimately rejected this plan.
Ricketts’ decision to manage these ads himself, however, highlights why simply overruling Citizens United will not be enough to defeat efforts by well-moneyed individuals to buy seats in Congress or even the White House. Citizens United authorized corporations to spend their vast fortunes to elect the candidates of their choice. And it paved the road for new organizations such as super PACs, which make it easier for wealthy individuals to inject their fortunes into an election. But the truth is that the very rich have long been able to use their wealth to influence elections — just three people provided nearly $10 million to the infamous Swift Boat Veterans for Truth’s anti-Kerry campaign in 2004. Citizens United unquestionably led to a massive spike in election spending, but this likely stems as much from the fact that it let the Adelsons and the Ricketts of the world know that there was no risk that the justices would ever reign them in as it did from real changes to the law.
More than three decades ago, a very different Supreme Court recognized that campaign finance laws must be allowed “to limit the actuality and appearance of corruption.” There is no question that when a single billionaire spends $10 million to place someone in the White House, such spending at least creates the appearance of corruption. If America someday has a new Supreme Court that is not determined to give billionaires free reign to buy elections, eliminating such corrupting influence will require a whole lot more than simply restoring a world where corporations cannot fund their favorite candidates.