Political Spending: California's "Green" Leadership?

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The political world is buzzing over today's big ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court that lifts seemingly all restrictions on campaign cash funneled into groups that operate independently of candidates for Congress.

Of course, those of us in the Golden State know a thing or two about free flowing money into "independent expenditure" groups. And so it seems -- once again -- as California goes, so goes the nation.

The SCOTUS ruling in Citizens United means no restrictions on corporate and union giving to independent campaign committees. The big ruling in the case known as Citizens United v. FEC has implications for the entire national political system, and we won't repeat here what's being said in many other news reports.

But it is worth noting that the decision appears to create a national system that mirrors the one in existence here in California since voters approved Proposition 34 almost ten years ago -- a system where contributions made in support or opposition of a candidate, but independently of that candidate's campaign, aren't subject to any limits.

"Now the federal system is the same as California," said Jessica Levinson, political director of the Center for Governmental Studies. I interviewed Levinson for a radio story that airs tomorrow morning on The California Report (check this posting tomorrow for audio).

Levinson says the ruling from the Supremes is a "game changer" in the world of political money, and will no doubt lead to a "flood" of money from big corporations and labor unions into the 2010 election season.

(Before we go any further, an important note: the ruling has no impact on races in California for governor, legislative seats, or other state constitutional officers. It only applies to campaigns for federal contests like those for Congress, and only then to independent political organizations; it did not wipe out existing campaign contribution limits made directly to candidates.)

So what kind of change has the no holds barred money allowed under Prop 34 brought to California politics? Plenty, according to a report last year from the state's campaign watchdogs, the Fair Political Practices Commission.

In many ways, the world of independent expenditures, "IEs" in political parlance, has meant candidate controlled committees are no longer the main focus of California's campaign cash bonanza. And CGS' Levinson says that for any state with laws on the books mimicking the national McCain-Feingold law at the heart of Citizens United, it won't be long before they, too, become like the wild west of California politics.

U.S. Sen. Barbara Boxer (Photo: Getty Images)

U.S. Sen. Barbara Boxer (Photo: Getty Images)

Most analysts who have weighed in so far say the 5-4 decision is likely to have a big impact on the race to replace or return Democrat Barbara Boxer to the U.S. Senate.

"Now, corporations or labor unions can tap into vast sums of money," said Levinson, "and directly make independent expenditures that either slam her or make her look like the greatest legislator in the world."

Boxer reported this week that she has $7.2 million in the bank for her race this year, but today's ruling may mean that's not going to be anywhere near enough to hold on to her job. And while the ruling may help any of her three potential GOP challengers -- Tom Campbell, Chuck DeVore, or Carly Fiorina -- it's Campbell and DeVore who lack personal funds to run a competitive race, and thus may be most happy with the ruling should either of them come out on top in the June primary.

The Court's ruling could also impact the handful of hot California races for the U.S. House of Representatives, as an interest group intent on tipping the outcome can do so with very few restrictions. Suppose, for example, state and national environmental groups want to ensure that their old nemesis, former congressman Richard Pombo doesn't win either the GOP primary for a different Central Valley seat in Congress or, failing that, the November general election? Now they've got a way to spend as much as they want to make that case.

It's worth noting that not everyone is either outraged by the SCOTUS ruling or thinks it's the end of campaign finance laws as we know them. And Levinson says it's important to remember that the Court left intact the donor disclosure laws that are on the books. But at the same time, the national politicos now face a much different campaign cash landscape... and they may want to look westward to see what lies ahead.

[Friday Update: Below you can listen to my extended Q&A with CGS' political director, Jessica Levinson. And a sincere apology to her, as both an earlier version of this posting and the radio report misidentifed her first name. --JM]

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About John Myers

John Myers is senior editor of KQED's new multimedia California Politics & Government Desk.  He has covered California politics for most of the past two decades -- serving previously as Sacramento bureau chief for KQED News and, most recently, as political editor for KXTV News10 (ABC) in Sacramento. He moderated the only gubernatorial debate of 2014, and was named one of the nation's top statehouse reporters by The Washington Post. Follow him on Twitter @johnmyers.

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