Get ready for a season of political money that goes beyond shock and awe. The highlights are sure to be outrageous attack ads that make the so-called “Swift-boating” of John Kerry in 2004 seem quaint.
The political reality in 2012 is that any House, Senate or presidential candidate without access to rich people’s pockets starts with a huge handicap that all but disqualifies them.
Restore Our Future, the super-PAC supporting Mitt Romney, is on track to spend $1.25 million this week -- before the Feb. 28 Michigan primary. The Romney campaign appears set to spend another $1 million in Michigan. The attack ads tarring Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich are no surprise. The surprise is that Romney and his super-PAC are able to unleash so much money on one state’s primary race.
From Georgia to Arizona, the pro-Romney PAC is putting $5 million behind its man before Super Tuesday. Just 60 people have given it $17 million. And the Romney campaign will throw more money on the fire.
The preview for this chapter of political history began when former Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) entered the Florida race with an 8-point lead after winning South Carolina’s primary.
Romney’s campaign and Restore Our Future rained $15 million in ads all over the state to tar Gingrich as corrupt and erratic, if not crazed. Gingrich spent about $4 million, or one quarter of the money launched against him. He lost by 15 points and has never recovered. That firepower was previously limited to the stretch run of a general election for president.
That ostentatious display of big money got the attention of the Obama campaign. Two weeks ago they shifted into big money gear by publicly backing Priorities USA Action, the super-PAC supporting the president.
And that decision by the Obama team has created new rules for the 2012 presidential race.
New Rule No. 1: The big spending starts in April. That means an unprecedented seven months of intensive spending on attack ads.
Steven J. Law, the president and CEO of American Crossroads, the leading Republican super-PAC, identifies April as the starting line. That is when the GOP will likely settle on a nominee. And that is the moment when he believes the Democrats will begin spending money on ads attacking whoever emerges as the nominee.
New Rule No. 2: The amount of money spent will be jaw-dropping.
Last year, the top super-PACs and non-profit groups supporting Democrats raised $19 million. The top 10 GOP super-PACs raised $64 million over the same period. That does not include Crossroads.
Crossroads, Crossroads GPS and the super-PAC supporting Romney pulled in over $80 million for 2011. Law’s goal is to raise $300 million this year, but some reports set the bar as high as $500 million. And more money will come from the Romney super-PAC and people such as casino mogul Sheldon Adelson, who has already given $11 million to Gingrich but reportedly has promised to support Romney in the future.
All that Republican money is far ahead of the $4 million raised by Priorities USA, the Obama super-PAC.
The President’s campaign -- along with the Democratic National Committee -- did raise $224 million last year. That put them well on the path to surpassing the $745 million the Democrats spent during the 2008 presidential race. And his campaign announced Friday that it raised $29 million in January.
But the president’s campaign still fears they will lose any fundraising advantage once the conservative super-PACs throw their money behind the GOP candidate.
Big labor typically serves as the Democrats’ primary counterweight to wealthy individuals and corporations backing the GOP. In 2010, the top 10 overall campaign contributors were made up of seven conservative groups and only three unions -- the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees; the Service Employees International Union, and the National Education Association.
This explains the effort by Republican governors and state legislatures to strip union workers of their collective bargaining rights over the last two years. They want to eliminate the competition.
New Rule #3: The added money will fuel more negativity in politics.
How is the idealist who opposes this phenomenon to respond?
There are conservatives, such as Law, who think campaign contribution laws should do more for the parties. And there are Democrats, including former Sen. Russ Feingold (D-Wis.), co-author of the McCain-Feingold campaign finance law, who favor limits on spending.
Feingold is critical of the Obama campaign’s decision to play by the new rules. “It is a dumb approach,” Feingold said. “It will lead to scandal and there are going to be a lot of people having corrupt conversations about huge amounts of money … [in] what is effectively a legalized Abramoff system.”
Feingold lost his 2010 re-election race to Republican Ron Johnson partly because he refused to take corporate money. Ironically, Feingold founded a PAC of his own, “Progressives United,” after leaving the Senate.
So, is Feingold a hypocrite, too?
Bill Burton, who heads Priorities USA in support of Obama, argues hypocrisy is not the issue. It would be foolish for the Democrats to operate at a disadvantage. Obama’s campaign manager Jim Messina also offers a pragmatic defense: “With so much at stake, we can’t allow for two sets of rules in this election whereby the Republican nominee is the beneficiary of unlimited spending and Democrats unilaterally disarm.”
Obviously, the change is not going to come from politicians, no matter how idealistic.
Change will have to rise up from the people who will see big money running wild for seven months before Election Day.
Here’s to a revolution.
Juan Williams is a co-host of FNC's "The Five," where he is one of seven rotating Fox personalities.