Licking their wounds after their attempted recall of Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker was soundly rebuffed by the Badger State’s voters, Democrats and their public-sector union allies have embraced the underdog mantle. In their dejected telling, the recall’s defeat is entirely attributable to the flood of outside cash to support Mr. Walker. All the standard left-wing scourges - “billionaire” Republicans, the libertarian Koch brothers, the Supreme Court’s decision in Citizens United - have been trotted out to support this lament. Even the Obama administration has gotten in on the act, with campaign manager Jim Messina alleging that “corporate and special-interest” spending “swung the election” in Mr. Walker’s favor. Democratic strategists despair that the left simply lacks the financial resources to compete with the right on an equal footing.
We can appreciate the allure of this narrative, which exempts the left from any serious reflection about the appeal of its political agenda or the flaws of its recall strategy. Indeed, there is a small kernel of truth to it: While the much-cited media claim that Mr. Walker outspent his Democratic rival, Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett, by a margin of 7-1 is almost certainly inflated, - the real ratio appears to have been closer to 3-1 - it is true that Mr. Walker was able to raise and spend more than his opponent. But the reasons for Mr. Walker’s spending advantage were unique to the Wisconsin race and are in no way indicative of the balance of spending power between the left and the right. Conventional wisdom and left-wing mythology may cast the GOP as the “party of the rich,” but as we document in our new book, “The New Leviathan,” the facts are closer to the opposite.
The governor’s funding advantage had less to do with the presumptive financial advantage of the right than with the intricacies of Wisconsin’s election finance rules. Those rules allowed Mr. Walker to solicit unlimited contributions from individuals after the recall petitions were filed last November, but they capped the individual contributions his challengers could accept at $10,000. Mr. Walker did not make those rules, though he did use them to his benefit. Counter to the left’s contention, however, the money he raised had nothing to do with the Supreme Court’s 2010 ruling in the case of Citizens United. That decision overturned a ban on federal election spending and did not apply to state election rules. Mr. Walker would have been able to collect the contributions he did even before the court overturned the federal ban. Even if it had applied, the fact is that the court’s decision freed unions as well as corporations to spend money during elections.
Moreover, it’s far from clear that money was decisive in the recall’s defeat. Polls showed that 88 percent of Wisconsin voters had made up their minds about how they would vote even before May, long before campaign spending on last-minute advertising blitzes had a chance to influence the electorate. Discomfortingly for Democrats, the ranks of those decided voters included union members who decided that whatever their disagreements with the governor, they were not in favor of evicting him before the end of his term. Exit polls later showed 38 percent of voters from union households voted for Mr. Walker. Not least, there is the fact that Mr. Walker’s reforms limited unions’ ability to compel political support from their members. Once Mr. Walker’s budget reform bill made union membership optional, unions such as the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees saw their membership plummet by 45 percent. Of course, it’s easier to invoke the specter of corporate spending than to consider why the state’s public-sector unions have fallen out of favor with traditional union members and supporters.
But the biggest problem with the left’s self-image as victims of conservative corporations and the Republican superrich is that it is a spectacular reversal of reality. While one wouldn’t know it from their post-recall self-pity, Democrats are backed by the most powerful financial machine in political history. It is a cash-armed supporting cast that includes powerful unions such as the National Education Association (total assets: $143 million) and the Service Employees International Union (total assets: $69 million). Big Labor’s power may have waned in recent decades, but unions still have managed to sink fortunes into key races, including $400 million for Democrats during the 2008 election.
The left’s money machine also includes the powerful, tax-exempt left-wing foundations, which tower over their counterparts on the right. As we report in “The New Leviathan,” the 115 major tax-exempt foundations of the left have a combined $104 billion in tax-exempt assets, more than 10 times the amount held by their 75 largest conservative counterparts. Those funds, in turn, are funneled to a vast array of Democratic and progressive 501(c)3 nonprofits and 527 political groups that shape federal and local policy agendas, help Democrats get elected, and shape the nation’s cultural and social issues. For instance, one of the rare bright spots for Democrats after the recall defeat was the victory of state Sen. John Lehman in Racine, where television ads placed by Planned Parenthood had a generally acknowledged impact on the result. In effect, the foundations are permanent and unaccountable corporations that influence national policy far more than for-profit corporations do. But Democrats are too busy blaming corporate cash for their defeat to admit it.
David Horowitz and Jacob Laksin are the authors of “The New Leviathan: How the Left-Wing Money-Machine Shapes American Politics and Threatens America’s Future” (Crown Forum, 2012).