Gary Conkling Life Notes

Mostly whimsical reflections on life

When Billionaires Battle Billionaires

We scoff at Vladimir Putin’s Russian oligarchy of billionaires, but American politics has become, in many ways, a battle between billionaires over health care, environmental regulations and tax policy.

billionaries_landing_page_hero_new2The most visible manifestation of billionaire versus billionaire is spending by SuperPacs on issues ranging from climate change to legalizing marijuana.

Slick, expensive ad campaigns attack and defend, only thinly associated with candidates running for office, whose own marketing efforts are often dwarfed by spending by the Big Boys.

News stories and commentaries have exposed Russia’s new ruling elite, describing them as lap dogs who serve their master in return for a rich food bowl. A new study out of Princeton University suggests America has moved from a democracy to an oligarchy, where the political agenda is set by the rich, not the common Joe. Martin Gilens, co-author of the study, calls it “biased pluralism.”

Whether or not you buy America’s oligarchic devolution, there is little question billionaires are dominating the electoral stage, thanks in large part to the U.S. Supreme Court rulings that lifted most restraints on political contributions and disclosure.

The core value at the heart of the rulings is that political speech is protected by the First Amendment. Anyone, even corporations, should be allowed to speak its mind. Based on the amount spending, billionaires have a lot on their collective minds.

imrs.phpThe Koch Brothers have achieved iconic status through the creation of a byzantine network of political action committees aimed at shrinking government, especially regulation affecting the industries in their billion-dollar empire. Public records indicate they contributed around $2 million this election cycle, but that’s because most of their contributions are cloaked in secrecy. Their outsized influence is the proof point they are shelling out a lot more $2 million.

Billionaire Thomas Steyer, whom CNN has dubbed California’s “hedge fund king,” is less well known than the Koch brothers, but no less vigorous in his political generosity. He created and is largely responsible for funding NextGen Climate Action, a SuperPac to support “environmentally active” candidates. He expects to spend $100 million in the 2014 election cycle – a $50 million contribution by Steyer, which he will match with another $50 million, according to NextGen.

These billionaires have hired top-flight strategists who are throwing the book at opponents – attack ads, ground troops and social media campaigns. A lot of attention is focused on close U.S. Senate races and on races in presidential election swing states such as Florida, Colorado, Iowa, Pennsylvania and Michigan.

Democratic candidates targeted by the Koch network, such as Oregon Senator Jeff Merkley, routinely blast “massive, out-of-state contributions.” Steyer’s $12 million investment in Florida’s gubernatorial race has gotten under the skin of incumbent GOP Governor Rick Scott, so much so that he plans to toss in some of his own millions for more ads attacking his Democratic opponent, Charlie Crist. Scott spent $75.1 million of his own money to win the 2010 race for governor.

Little wonder that average citizens, even politically active people who give $50 to the candidate they trust and want to see elected, feel lost in the vapor trail left by billionaires who make elections seem like bidding wars.

We may still have a democracy where every vote counts, but billionaires seem like the people calling the shots. And when you meet with a congressman, he or she may pay attention to what you say, but you will have in the back of your mind that he or she is paying attention to someone else, someone with a net worth of $1 billion or more.



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