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Political Mercury

The dark greed of corporate interests bread-bagged a U.S. senator


Joni Ernst, who won the U.S. Senate race in Iowa last week, said that enduring the onslaught of political ads is the price of living in a democracy.

Joni Ernst, who won the U.S. Senate race in Iowa last week, said that enduring the onslaught of political ads is the price of living in a democracy.

Eighty-five million dollars. That’s how much Democrats and Republicans and a colorfully striped array of outside interest groups spent on the U.S. Senate race in Iowa, according to the non-partisan Center for Responsive Politics (CRP). More money than Georgia ($66 million). More money than Kentucky ($78 million), where Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell faced a spirited challenge.

According to the Iowa Secretary of State’s office, 1,119,914 people voted in the U.S. Senate race. The campaigns and their allies spent $76.22 per vote.

Of the money spent in Iowa, $62 million came not from the campaigns, but outside groups.

We have a better grip on the origins of the liberal money.

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“Democratic/liberal groups channeled most of their money through organizations that disclosed donors, while their more conservative counterparts relied heavily on secret sources funneling money through political nonprofits,” writes CRP’s Russ Choma.

As Donald Rumsfeld might say, we don’t even know what we don’t know — when it comes to the sources of funding for Republican victor Joni Ernst’s meteoric rise from humble Red Oak living (bread-bagged shoes and an $80,000 home) to something of an institution in and of herself. Corporations really are people. Exhibit A: Ernst, whom outside groups spent $12 million advocating, and another $20 million in trashing her opponent, U.S. Rep. Bruce Braley, according to CRP.

During an Oct. 16 debate at Morningside College in Sioux City, Braley and Ernst said they’d turned off their TVs at home to escape political commercials connected to their contest.

“I don’t watch television any longer,” Ernst said.

She added, “My husband and daughter don’t watch television.”

Same for Braley.

“My family and I don’t watch TV anymore,” Braley said.

But the candidates offered dramatically different takes on what to do about campaign advertising, much of it funded through outside interest groups empowered by the U.S. Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision, which says spending on political commercials is free speech.

Ernst says enduring the ads is the price of living in a democracy. People have a right to spend as much money on TV ads as they want, she said.

Braley said the Citizens United decision is “one of the biggest threats to democracy there is.”

“The political free speech of secret donors is not more important than the free speech of Iowans,” said Braley, who supported limits on campaign spending and openness about the origins of financing ads.

Much is written and said about the spending in modern American politics.

A few weeks before the election, as I sat at the Homestead coffee shop and eatery in Jefferson interviewing Brad Anderson, I interrupted my own line of questioning with the realization that Anderson, a bright, charismatic 39-year-old, had been running for Iowa Secretary of State for nearly two years.

Of the non-legacy Democrats seeking statewide office (Michael Fitzgerald and Tom Miller who served when many Iowans still watched black-and-white TVs), Anderson performed the best, losing to former Secretary of State Paul Pate 48.5 percent to 46.6 percent.

Whether you voted for Anderson or not, applaud him for giving you a choice in the race. But it came at too much of a cost for Anderson. Two years. That’s 100 weekends, many of them spent on campaigning instead of with family and friends. It’s two years of being essentially “on” all the time, smiles for supporters, guarded approaches with the newly met, in the world of smart phones, where even the only child carries Big Brother in his pocket. Your next words could end a political life.

Our campaigns take too much money and far too much time.

Public funding of campaigns conducted in a three-month time frame would make sense. More people of substance would be able to put their considerable lives, family and career, on hold to pursue elective offices, if, when they failed, the time lost from other worthy pursuits was 90 days — not 700 days.

But, of course, that will never happen. Our politics smells more of ready cash than the Denver Mint.

Ernst and the forces of “money equals speech” won the day last Tuesday.

But with millions of dollars in favors, spoken or winked, to return now that the counting of votes is complete, how free will Ernst be to speak her mind, act on conscience, go with instinct?

burns doug 12-10-25The dark greed of corporate interests may very well have bread-bagged her votes and words before she’s even been sworn in. She may be more hostage than senator. CV     

Douglas Burns is a fourth-generation Iowa newspaperman who writes for The Carroll Daily Times Herald and offers columns for Cityview.

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