A recent story by the Kentucky Press News Service blamed Super PAC’s and big money in the Kentucky Attorney Generals race. The article, “Money in AG race is devil of a problem,” made it sound like Sen. Whitney Westerfield had his own personal PAC fund that he could direct at will. “[I]nstead of going out and asking people for $1000 checks… Westerfield is allowing a Super PAC to almost completely fund his race,” said Joe Gerth who wrote the article.
To be clear, it isn’t his fund. It is a third-party entity called an Issues Committee or Unauthorized Campaign Committee (UCC) that reports its donors and expenditures to the Kentucky Registry of Election Finance (KREF). In fact, Sen. Westerfield has no authority to allow or not allow such organizations to engage in his election. It’s against the law. Election law prohibits UCC’s from coordinating or communicating with candidates for their benefit. If they are caught, they could find themselves in hot water. Such was the case in 2010 when a state House candidate in Louisville cut a commercial with a labor group working on his behalf.
The story insinuates that Super PACS are corrosive to the political process while admitting that old school political fundraising has its own ethical challenges. The U.S. Supreme Court paved the way for third party groups to engage politically in its 2010 Citizens United ruling which struck down a restrictive federal campaign finance law that barred corporations and wealthy individuals from influencing elections apart from an established campaign.
Class-warfare hawks decry this new campaign finance framework as big money corrupting the system. Media brokers who’ve controlled electoral narratives for so long are seeing their concentrated influence diminish, even while many of their advertising departments are flush with cash thanks to Super PACs.
Free speech advocates see the advent of third party Super PACs quite differently. They’re available to all sides of the political spectrum and can be used for good or for ill; can communicate in a respectful or wrong way; and can choose to wallow in the mud of personal attack or elevate the process and standards of political discourse. At least these choices are available under the new campaign finance framework.
Our political experience has been one where we value free speech — and more of it, not less. Business owners have enjoyed speech rights to their fullest and they spend billions peddling their products and convincing consumers their lives would be incomplete without x,y, or z brand. When ads are annoying, people turn the channel or tune it out. When the message is convincing and marketed product is good quality then consumers buy. Shouldn’t this be the approach to political advertising as well?
One may not agree with the political ads or what is being peddled, but opponents’ first reaction shouldn’t be to prohibit their ability to do so. Such griping over third-party entities and their political influence is more akin to a system favorable to dictatorial regimes bent on squashing dissent than one promoted by any of our Founding Fathers.
Both Beshear and Westerfield have other Super PACs working on their behalf, but what Sen. Westerfield does not have is the advantage of a governor in his family and a political network that has been cultivated over several decades. Nor does he have his father’s rolodex to help him raise money.
Altogether, 22 of 31 of Gov. Beshear’s appointees to the University of Kentucky and University of Louisville board of trustees donated to his son Andy. Certainly there have been other favors called in by the governor to benefit his son. Such political payback blurs lines between power, influence and the outcome of the next election. And of course it makes it tough for an outsider like Westerfield, who is better qualified but less politically connected, to win. At least in this race, Super PACs appear to be leveling the playing field.
Richard Nelson is the executive director of the Commonwealth Policy Center, a nonprofit public policy organization. He resides in Cadiz with his wife and children.