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Editorial: SuperPACs give few donors much power

DemocrTammy Duckworth Republican U.S. Rep. Joe Walsh WTTW-Channel debate Thursday.  |  Charles Rex Arbogast~AP

Democrat Tammy Duckworth and Republican U.S. Rep. Joe Walsh at WTTW-Channel to debate Thursday. | Charles Rex Arbogast~AP

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Updated: November 23, 2012 6:07AM

We’re yearning for the good old days of campaign finance.

Yes, you read that right.

SuperPACs have so up-ended the world of political donations and spending, granting a small number of donors outsized influence, we are looking back misty-eyed at yesteryear’s half-broken system.

Exhibit A is Illinois’ 8th Congressional District race, which pits Democrat Tammy Duckworth against U.S. Rep. Joe Walsh in the northwest suburbs.

SuperPACs already have spent almost $2.4 million on Walsh’s behalf, mostly on ads that attack Duckworth.

The bulk of it, $1.8 million, comes from one source, the Missouri-based Now or Never SuperPAC. This dwarfs what Walsh raised on his own in the last quarter: $251,000. Duckworth raised $1.5 million.

And this is just the beginning of SuperPAC spending. An additional $2.5 million from Now or Never is coming, a source told Chicago Sun-Times reporter Natasha Korecki last week.

Who cares, you ask? A fair race matters to those in the district and to the nation — it’s one of the key races that could determine which party controls the U.S. House.

SuperPACs are objectionable for many reasons; chief among them is their ability to sway an election based on the will and dollars of just a few people or groups. SuperPACs, an outgrowth of the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2010 Citizens United decision and other court decisions, can spend money from corporations, unions and individuals without limit to advance or oppose a candidate, so long as they don’t coordinate with the candidate.

Before Citizens United, we just had political parties and political action committees, known as PACs. They’re still throwing big money around, but at least they are subject to limits on how much each person or group can contribute. And, they have to disclose all their donors.

Not so in the new SuperPAC world. SuperPACs have to disclose their donors, but they can accept money from “social welfare” nonprofits that don’t have to disclose donors. It’s common for SuperPACs to set up affiliated nonprofits to funnel this untraceable money.

The Now or Never SuperPAC is an excellent example. In September, it received $1.9 million from one of these non-disclosing group, Americans for Limited Government.

Little is known about this group’s backers except that its chairman is a wealthy libertarian, Howard Rich, who, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, has a network of charities and social-welfare non-profits, which also are allowed to lobby and bankroll political ads.

This is the group that could tilt the election in Walsh’s favor. Walsh is best-known for his views on limited government and for making incendiary comments, including one last week on abortion.

Duckworth is going after Now or Never and ALG, noting that Walsh worked for Americans for Limited Government in the early 2000s. Duckworth’s campaign plans to file a federal complaint, alleging illegal coordination between candidate Walsh and ALG and Now or Never. ALG adamantly denies any coordination. Duckworth isn’t likely to make much headway. Connections between SuperPACs and candidates are common, blurring the definition of “coordinated” on a daily basis.

And, to be fair, Democratic SuperPACs are spending on Duckworth’s behalf too, though Duckworth is opposed to all SuperPAC spending and tried to get Walsh to pledge to rid them from their race. “They’re all bad,” Duckworth told us. “They all need to go.”

The Supreme Court has spoken on this issue, leaving little wiggle room. But Congress could help by beefing up donor disclosure.

After this record-setting campaign ends, Congress at the very least ought to let Americans know who is pulling the strings in their elections.

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