July 22–Jonathan Soros, son of hedge fund billionaire George Soros, is about to meet casino mogul Sheldon Adelson in a smackdown over the Sacramento-area congressional seat held by Republican Dan Lungren.
Soros, 42, is a Harvard-educated lawyer who helps run the family business and has inherited some of the old man’s liberal politics.
He is using his wealth and connections to create a super PAC that, in essence, seeks to rid the political system of the influence of super PACs.
Soros talked to me by phone as he stepped on and off an elevator in New York City, and stated the obvious, that voters are disgusted with the twisted system of raising and spending vast sums of money to elect and un-elect candidates.
“There is no political consequence for members of Congress failing to act,” Soros said. “The political goal is really to generate power around this issue and impose a cost for inaction.”
There are multiple levels of irony in the undertaking. His father spread $27 million around federal campaigns to block George W. Bush’s 2004 re-election. While George Soros has stepped back from federal politics, rich people on the right are spending stratospheric sums to unseat President Barack Obama and elect House and Senate Republicans.
Jonathan Soros intends to raise $8 million for his Friends of Democracy political action committee, and wage campaigns in 10 or 15 swing districts around the country.
He and his advisers think they’ve found an ideal target in Lungren, the former California attorney general who has held office off and mostly on since 1979, and is running in a newly redrawn district that runs from Elk Grove to Folsom.
The swing district is evenly divided, with 39 percent of the voters Democrats, 38 percent Republicans, and 17 percent declining to state party preference.
Democrat Ami Bera, a physician from Elk Grove, is running against Lungren for a second time. Bera consistently raises more money than Lungren, but he embraces Soros’ concept of public financing of congressional races.
“Public financing would be a great option,” Bera told me.
Lungren chairs the House Administration Committee, through which all campaign finance bills must pass. He could have worked on legislation during this session. But serious efforts to overhaul the system don’t get far. Besides, Lungren’s vision differs from the current orthodoxy.
As it is, individual donors can give no more than $2,500 per election directly to a congressional candidate. But they can give unlimited sums to independent committees, which, in turn, can spend as much as they want.
Lungren believes he could make independent political action committees obsolete by eliminating caps on direct contributions to candidates.
He believes donors should be able to give unlimited amounts to candidates and parties, though he’d restrict big donations in the final days before elections, and would require immediate Internet disclosure.
“I would rather have the money directed to the candidates or the parties,” he said. “Require candidates to take responsibility for their campaigns. People can make judgments.”
There is clarity to Lungren’s view. If a union or an oil company could give $100,000 to a candidate, as occurred when Lungren was running for statewide office in the 1990s, voters could get clear a sense of a politician’s priorities. Now, with big money flowing into independent committees, it’s harder to figure out who underwrites our politicians.
The U.S. Supreme Court long ago concluded that the First Amendment gives people the right to spend their money to have their words heard. In its Citizens United decision in 2010, the high court held that corporations and unions could spend money on independent campaigns.
In Campaign 2012, it has come to this: A handful of the richest men in America spend millions and maybe hundreds of millions to buy microphones and amplify their speech.
Their money will speak loudest in presidential swing states, where Obama, Mitt Romney and independent groups dominate the airwaves. But we’ll hear some of it in the Lungren-Bera race, a battleground in the fight for control of the House.
In addition to Soros’ effort, American Crossroads, one of Karl Rove’s campaign groups, likely will visit our living rooms again, having spent $682,000 in television ads against Bera two years ago.
American Action Network sent mailers last month to help Lungren. Casino mogul Adelson and his wife gave $5 million to the group’s campaign arm.
David Donnelly, a Washington strategist who is helping Soros target candidates, homed in on Lungren in part because he is vulnerable, but also because of his “radical position” on campaign finance law.
Donnelly hopes to “elevate” champions of campaign finance reform, Bera among them.
Bera said he might go so far as to support a constitutional amendment that would reverse the Citizens United decision, calling it “corrosive to politics.”
“I would support anything to overturn Citizens United,” Bera said.
True, big money is corrosive to politics. But I wouldn’t trust any politician to monkey with basic First Amendment protections of freedom of speech, association and religion.
Soros doesn’t believe an amendment is needed to deal with Citizens United. Better to work to change the majority on the Supreme Court, or implement public financing, though voters in this state never have embraced the concept.
“Our objective is not to stop individuals from using private funds to express their views. Our objective is to break the dependence of candidates on money,” Soros said.
Soros advocates a tax-supported public financing system similar to one in New York City in which candidates agree to spending limits and receive matching funds for collecting small donations of, say, $175. New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo has begun championing the idea.
Soros listed several other ideas, including giving more power to the Federal Election Commission, which long has been mired in past partisan divides.
He’d require full disclosure of donations, ensure that independent committees operate at arm’s length from candidates, and limit the revolving door between government work and lobbying.
Over the past two decades, regulation of campaign money has become more complex, and money is talking louder than ever. That ought to worry voters.
Soros is offering thoughtful ideas that warrant consideration. The alternative is that plutocrats, whether they run hedge funds or casinos, will exert ever more control, and that will undermine democracy.