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Rep. Peters Decries Citizens United Ruling On Its 6th Anniversary

Democrat has been helped, hindered by Supreme Court’s landmark campaign financing decision

Photo by Megan Wood / inewsource

Rep. Scott Peters, D-San Diego, denounces the Citizens United campaign finance ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court during a news conference in Clairemont to mark the sixth anniversary of the decision, Jan. 21, 2016.

Democrat Scott Peters was helped and hindered by the Supreme Court’s campaign financing ruling when outside groups in 2014 spent a total of $7.8 million supporting and opposing him and his main GOP opponent.

At a Clairemont community park, Congressman Scott Peters on Thursday marked the sixth anniversary of the U.S. Supreme Court’s Citizens United ruling by speaking plainly about the negative effects he says it’s had on politics.

“There’s way too much attention on this big money, secret money and raising money for this government to work very well,” Peters said, flanked by a handful of UC San Diego students.

It’s something the San Diego Democrat should know well as the post-Citizens United rules of campaign finance played a key role in both lubricating and obstructing his last re-election campaign in the 52nd District.

52nd Congressional District

The district runs north from Coronado to La Jolla, and then east to include Carmel Valley, Scripps Ranch, Poway and Rancho Bernardo.

In 2014, an array of outside groups — many of them empowered by Citizens United and a related court ruling — reported to the Federal Election Commission spending a total of $7.8 million supporting and opposing Peters and his main Republican opponent, Carl DeMaio, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit research organization that tracks money in politics. Of that money, 55 percent went to back Peters.

That ranked the contest 14th in outside spending among 2014 general election House matchups.

In the Citizens United decision, the Supreme Court ruled that political spending is a form of First Amendment-protected speech, so the government couldn’t ban corporations from spending money in elections.

Plenty of outside spending unaccounted for

That $7.8 million figure in the Peters-DeMaio race only includes the outside spending that was reported. It doesn’t include the money spent on issue ads.

Related: Pick a PAC, any PAC

Issue ads can mention a candidate as long as they do not expressly advocate for or against the election or defeat of that candidate. They also cannot air within 60 days of a general election or 30 days of a primary, and they do not have to be reported to the FEC.

Several such ad buys were made during Peters’ 2014 race, including a $705,000 anti-Peters advertising blitz in August from Crossroads GPS, which is run by Republican political consultant Karl Rove.

In addition, Americans for Prosperity, backed by the conservative billionaire Koch brothers, made anti-Peters ad buys in late 2013 and early 2014, and the League of Conservation Voters paid for a pro-Peters ad blitz in December 2013.

No reliable source of information is available on the total amount of money spent on such advertising.

Peters had ‘dark money’ allies of his own

What’s more, some of the newly empowered outside spending groups don’t have to report their donors because they’re registered as “social welfare” nonprofits with the Internal Revenue Service.

At Thursday’s news conference, Peters said the key provision of his plan to roll back money’s influence on politics would be to require such groups to disclose their donors.

“At a minimum, these multimillion-dollar super PACs should have to disclose where their money comes from, because voters deserve to know whether these ads are being funded by oil companies or labor unions or environmental groups or whoever,” Peters said. “You ought to know that.“

That said, some of Peters’ support two years ago came from these “dark money” groups. Groups that don’t disclose any of their donors reported spending more than $520,000 to back Peters in 2014, according to the Center for Responsive Politics data. That’s in addition to the ads by the League of Conservation Voters in 2013.

Neither Crossroads GPS nor Americans for Prosperity, the groups behind the anti-Peters attack ads, discloses its donors.

Outside Spending in the 2014 52nd Congressional District Election

Note: These figures do not include spending on “issue ads” that aired more than 60 days before Election Day.

Source: Center for Responsive Politics

Asked if it were hypocritical to call for such groups to disclose their donors while also benefiting from their support, Peters said he had no choice but to play by the rules of the post-Citizens United era.

“I’m the one out here asking to change the system,” Peters said. “There’s tons of people who’ve gotten support from PACs around the country who aren’t raising a finger to change the system.”

Asked if he would disavow support from such groups in his current race, the congressman said he would — but only if his opponents did the same.

“I’m not about to unilaterally disarm,” Peters said. “I think if I have opponents who are willing to do that, we’d have to consider it. But we have a system that’s corrupt. What I hope you’ll appreciate is that I’m out there asking to change it.”

Peters' GOP opponents rejected that offer.

Jason Roe, political consultant for small-business owner Denise Gitsham's campaign, wrote in a statement that “If (Peters) wants to turn down money from organizations this time around, he should do so, regardless of what the other candidates in this race choose to do.”

He added that “Denise welcomes those who believe in and support the principles she espouses, and maintains that more free speech is better for political discourse.”

The campaign of Jacquie Atkinson, a Marine combat veteran and Peters’ other GOP opponent, sounded a similar note.

Anastacia Knepper, Atkinson's campaign manager, wrote in a statement that "Jacquie will accept money from anyone who believes in her as the right person to protect our country from the dangers coming (from) the Middle East and around the world."

How much money this time around?

Peters’ bid this year for re-election is not expected to attract the same amount of outside spending that it did two years ago, said Carl Luna, a political science professor at San Diego Mesa College.

“The district is simply less competitive for the Republicans than it was in 2014,” Luna said.

He predicted that a presidential year turnout more favorable to Democrats, two more years of Peters’ incumbency and the lack of a challenger with prior elected experience all would send well-heeled outside spending groups elsewhere.

But Gary Jacobson, a political science professor at UC San Diego specializing in congressional elections, said “the money will come pouring in” if either of Peters’ challengers appear to be gaining traction. Why? Because “there is a ton of money out there now,” Jacobson said.

But does all this money matter?

Jacobson said that in the most competitive of races, it probably doesn’t.

“In those races where it’s likely to matter, both parties are going to have enough money to more than saturate the market,” he said. Statistical evidence suggests the impact of outside spending in the most competitive races — those where both sides have huge amounts of money at their disposal — is essentially none, Jacobson said.

“How many mailers do you need to get in your mailbox?” he said. “How many TV ads do you need to see?”

inewsource video journalist Megan Wood contributed to this report.

Photo caption:

This story has been updated to include a statement from Jacquie Atkinson's campaign that was received after the story was published.

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