In new era, political parties fade
As money flows elsewhere, traditional Democratic and Republican groups lose influenceBy Joe Hallett, June 30, 2013
Ohio’s Democrats and Republicans showed they still know how to party at their annual fund-raising dinners, pulsating with music and stem-winding speeches, in Downtown hotels over the past two Saturdays.
But beyond the excitement of the events and exhilaration of the partisans, a longer-term question haunted the respective ballrooms: Is the party coming to an end for the parties?
As the two major parties contend with declining memberships, poor images and competition from well-heeled independent groups, their importance nationally and in states is gradually ebbing.
“The parties are less significant today than they have been — maybe ever,” said Kevin DeWine, former chairman of the Ohio Republican Party. “I don’t see that changing.”
David Leland, former chairman of the Ohio Democratic Party, agreed: “As a society, we have taken steps to diminish the clout of the political parties, and I think that’s a bad thing.”
Discontent with the two parties has grown, evident by the rise of more independent-minded groups such as the tea party and by polls showing widespread public frustration with partisans in public office.
“Recent history nationally is that more people are independent,” said Peter Brown, assistant director of the Quinnipiac University Polling Institute. “I don’t think anybody likes political parties. These days, Americans ... don’t like politicians generally.”
A snapshot of that sentiment was found in two Gallup polls this month, one showing only 17 percent of Americans approve of the way Congress is handling its job and another showing Americans’ confidence in Congress as an institution is down to 10 percent — both all-time lows. Moreover, Americans’ job approval ratings of Democrats (34 percent) and Republicans (26 percent) in Congress are among the worst Gallup has measured for each party historically.
Over the past two decades, the two major parties have seen outside groups gradually usurp their traditional functions — from fund-raising to organizing to voter-targeting. Committees supporting Democrat Barack Obama and Republican Mitt Romney in last year’s presidential race each raised more money than the parties’ national committees.
“It’s harder for parties to be relevant because they don’t control the nomination, the candidates or the money,” said Ohio Secretary of State Jon Husted, a Republican.
But nothing has threatened the major parties more than the proliferation of super PACs, officially known as “independent-expenditure committees,” which can raise money from individuals, corporations, unions and other groups, without any limits. Such political action committees can’t contribute directly to candidate campaigns or parties, but they can spend unlimited amounts independently of the campaigns.
Political spending by such PACs often occurs without complete or immediate disclosure about who is funding them.
If a group qualifies as a “social welfare” organization under Section 501(c)(4) of the code, it doesn’t have to disclose its donors at all.
In the 2012 campaign cycle, super PACs spent more than $609 million and social welfare groups spent more than $256 million in federal races, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.
Beginning with the McCain-Feingold Act of 2002, which precluded the two parties from receiving “soft money” — unregulated and unlimited contributions used for party-building, get-out-the-vote efforts and “issue” ads — the Republican and Democratic parties have seen their fund-raising prowess decline.
“Everything that has occurred has pushed donors away from parties and decreased the significance and importance of political parties,” DeWine said. “What you’re seeing is fewer and fewer people playing at significant levels with political parties.”
Columbus attorney William Todd, who has represented outside groups involved in the political process, said donors are gravitating to super PACs and away from the parties and candidate campaign funds.
“From a very pragmatic standpoint, it’s a lot easier to raise $5 million for a super PAC than $5 million in a candidate campaign,” he said. “In a super PAC, which is allowed to get contributions of unlimited amounts, you could have five people giving $1 million each.”
Former Rep. Steve LaTourette, R-Bainbridge Township, said the decline of the parties began immediately after Congress passed McCain-Feingold, first creating a wave of so-called 527 organizations such as Moveon.org. Then came the super PACs, resulting in an influx of non-party money into politics.
The groups, he said, “can dwarf, in many cases, anything a party or candidate can do.... The campaign-finance structure has taken the power out of the two parties, and I think that’s unfortunate. What’s gone up in the vacuum is worse.”
Leland agreed, saying parties, in part, were created “to keep people with large fortunes and singular interests from dominating elections ... but now we’re just empowering those very few to control our political process.”
Viveca Novak, spokeswoman for the Center for Responsive Politics, said money likely will continue to move away from the parties: “There’s no indication that the outside groups are going to go away. I think there will probably be more of them. Each candidate will probably have his own super PAC or 501(c) group supporting them, so that doesn’t bode well for the parties.”
But it’s too soon to write obituaries for the political parties, said Fred Wertheimer, president of Democracy 21, a nonpartisan organization advocating campaign finance reform. He noted that the aggregate raised and spent in the 2012 election cycle by Democratic and Republican organizations across the country exceeded $1 billion per party.
Ohio GOP Chairman Matt Borges said the parties fill “a resource role” by recruiting candidates, organizing and training volunteers, providing voter-targeting, opposition research and other data, raising money, and branding a message that entices voters.
“There is only one organization in the state that is looking out for Republicans at the local, state and national level, and that’s the Ohio Republican Party,” Borges said.
Party labeling allows voters to understand Democratic candidates and “what their values reflect,” said Chris Redfern, chairman of the Ohio Democratic Party, adding, “By saying Democrat or Republican, a person in Bucyrus will know what a Democrat stands for because of our messaging.”