Opinion Pieces


Super PACs not to blame for political ills June 25, 2012 by Richard Nelson

            After Republican Congressional Candidate Thomas Massie won the seven-way primary for Kentucky’s 4th Congressional district, opponents were quick to cry foul because of a super PAC that poured out-of-state money into advertising that benefitted Massie. Altogether, over $560,000 was used to influence that election, leaving candidates on the short-end of super PAC support tasting sour grapes. But is it necessary for the media to make the public drink from the same cup of bitterness as well? To be sure, running in a campaign is deeply personal. I’ve run in two elections and have experienced firsthand the mental and emotional roller coaster of putting yourself out there for the voters. Supporters have their emotional cart hitched to the candidate as well and when he or she doesn’t win, explanations are needed.

            But are super PACs really to blame?  Are they responsible for massive state and federal debts? A struggling economy and high unemployment? Energy woes? The virtue deficit?  In a culture steeped in blame, it is convenient to target super PACs for our political ills. Congressman John Yarmuth (D-Louisville) jumped on that bandwagon and sponsored legislation seven months ago that would effectively ban them, and overturn the 2010 U.S. Supreme Court Citizens United ruling which allowed third parties, including corporations and wealthy individuals, to make unlimited financial expenditures in order to influence an election within prescribed guidelines. 

            Class warfare hawks pit this as big money corrupting the system. Free speech advocates on the other hand, see this quite differently. Super PACs are available to all sides of the political spectrum and can be used for good or for ill; communicate in a respectful or wrong way; choose to wallow in the mud of personal attack or elevate the process and standards of political discourse. But under Citizens United, at least these choices are available. A full disclosure is in order: I’m leading a super PAC here in Kentucky. For the record, this is a grassroots effort of Kentuckians where the majority of contributions are small.

            The American experience has been one where we value free-speech, and more of it, not less. Certain entities have enjoyed speech rights to their fullest and they spend billions maximizing their product and their message. Hollywood churns out movies, sometimes mindless, often marginal and a few offensive, but there is no credible and collective movement to restrict their investors and shut down their speech. The business world spends countless more billions on advertising their products, often with the intent of making the consumer feel inadequate until a purchase is made.  And the people opposed to business advertising consists of, let me think, exactly zero. Most people tune it out or turn the channel. 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. False and misleading ads are still illegal. So are slander and libel, threats and bribes. But shutting down third-party entities and their political opinions is more akin to a move by former KGB director now Russian President Vladimir Putin than one promoted by Thomas Jefferson or any of our Founding Fathers.

            The truth is that money doesn’t always win an election.  Critics of Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker who survived a recall election earlier in the month claim it was his lopsided 7-1 spending margin that spelled victory. Yet in 2006, advocates for the timeless definition of marriage in the same state were outspent by 7-1 and yet they prevailed by a vote of 60-40 percent. Super candidates and superior arguments matter more than money.

             In an age of political apathy, (less than 14 percent of voters turned out in the May primary). Super PACs might strike a chord with an electorate wary of messaging coming from candidates and their party apparatus. These are times that try men’s souls, and considering the deep political frustration, more speech and political communication outside of government reach is a good thing and it’s about as American as you can get.


Note: This op-ed first appeared in the Lexington Herald-Leader on July 5, 2012. http://www.kentucky.com/2012/07/05/2248920/richard-nelson-super-pacs-a-solution.html



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