Thanks in part to the Citizens United Supreme Court case in 2010, any corporation, non-profit, super PAC, or individual can spend an unlimited amount of money to advocate directly for or against political candidates. Outside groups like Karl Rove’s Crossroads GPS and American Action Network have sprung up in recent years, spending hundreds of millions to help candidates of their choice. In the presidential race, for instance, outside spending groups have spent more money on Mitt Romney’s behalf than Mitt Romney’s campaign has.
Under these campaign finance rules, ThinkProgress decided to investigate how expensive it would be to buy all available television ads for the month prior to the election, virtually guaranteeing victory for the favored Senate candidate. We looked at North Dakota, which is home to one of the most competitive Senate races this year between Rep. Rick Berg (R) and former Attorney General Heidi Heitkamp (D), to see what it would cost for an outside group to buy up every single ad slot for network TV in the month of October.
An analysis of ad rate cards for each of North Dakota’s 19 ABC, CBS, FOX, and NBC affiliates showed that if every minute of ad time was available for the month of October — estimating about 15 minutes of advertising per hour — the total cost would be, at most, about $90,414,275. Of course, during prime time network programming, many of those ad slots are reserved for national advertisements, so the actual cost would likely be significantly lower than $90 million. But by buying every single 30-second slot for those thirty-one days, a group would not only be able to run tens of thousands of political messages — it would block the other side from being able to get its message out to viewers.
Federal law does offer some protection for a federal candidate in this situation. Those running for president and Congress are entitled to “reasonable access” to advertisements. Meredith McGehee, policy director for the Campaign Legal Center, told ThinkProgress that TV stations generally “keep some degree of ad inventory open for candidates,” but “as long as they come up with someone halfway decent and not ridiculous,” the Federal Communications Commission tends to leave it up to the stations how much access is “reasonable.” And because these protections do not apply to outside groups, a group could completely freeze out independent expenditures for the other side.
This possibility exposes yet another flaw in the Supreme Court’s election-buying decision in Citizens United v. FEC. In Austin v. Michigan Chamber of Commerce, the 1990 precedent that was overruled in Citizens United, the Court upheld a ban on political expenditures by corporate donors because “the unique state-conferred corporate structure that facilitates the amassing of large treasuries warrants the limit on independent expenditures.” These large treasuries enable many corporations to drown out all other voices — such as by buying up nearly every single ad slot in contested U.S. Senate race — while spending only a fraction of their vast sums of money. Yet Citizens United tossed out the longstanding rule preventing corporations from gaining “an unfair advantage in the political marketplace” via “resources amassed in the economic marketplace.”
The benefits of owning a senator are enormous. Beyond controlling one of the 100 most powerful legislators on Capitol Hill, arcane Senate rules, such as the filibuster and secret holds, give each individual senator an extraordinary level of influence. It’s not difficult for one obstructive senator to bring the entire American legislative process to a halt until he gets his way.
Could an outside group afford it? Karl Rove’s American Crossroads and Crossroads GPS reportedly have a combined budget of at least $300 million. The Koch Brothers, who made their vast fortune in the oil and consumer products industry, are each worth approximately $31 billion. It goes without saying that having a senator from an oil states who owes his seat to their backing would be a shrewd business decision for the Koch Brothers. A cheap Senate seat could also tempt a company like Exxon-Mobil, for whom $90 million would amount to just 0.22 percent of its $41 billion total profit in 2011.
Indeed, with control of the Senate potentially at stake, an array of outside groups are already pouring millions of dollars into ads trying to sway the election. It is impossible to know how effective a $90 million ad campaign would be, but it could certainly drown out virtually all other voices. And studies have shown that television ads are hugely influential in who wins elections — and the candidates who spend the most usually win.
Of course, because it’s already October, an array of groups and campaigns have already reserved ad slots in North Dakota for the month. But, because of our inept campaign finance rules, nothing would stop Rove, Koch, or anyone else from effectively purchasing a small-state Senate seat in this manner in 2014.
ThinkProgress obtained ad rate cards for the month of October 2012 from WDAY and WDAZ, KVRR, KBRR, KJRR, and KNRR, KVLY, KXJB, KFYR, KQCD, KMOT, KUMV, KBMY and KMCY, KXMA, KXMB, KXMC and KXMD, and KNDX. Super PACs and 501(c)(4) are not entitled to the “lowest unit rate” that federal candidates enjoy, so all of these rates were for political group advertisements.
We calculated, from these cards, the number of hours of programming and the number of days over the month of October that each program would run. Then, estimating 15 minutes of commercial time per hour (30 30-second spots), we multiplied the number of slots in each program over October by the cost per slot.