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As Five States Hold Primaries, a Look at the Role of Money in Politics

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Voters headed to the polls in Alaska, Arizona, Florida, Oklahoma and Vermont yesterday in a big day of state primaries. Florida Rep. Kendrick Meek defeated billionaire real estate mogul Jeff Greene in the state’s Democratic Senate primary. But billionaire businessman Rick Scott pulled off an upset over Attorney General Bill McCollum in the Florida gubernatorial primary after spending $30 million on the race. We take a look at the role of money in those and other primary races with Charles Lewis, founder of the Center for Public Integrity. [includes rush transcript]

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: Voters headed to the polls in Alaska, Arizona, Florida, Oklahoma and Vermont Tuesrday in a big day of state primaries.

In Alaska, the incumbent senator Lisa Murkowski is at risk of losing her seat against the Tea Party candidate Joe Miller in what could be a huge upset. With 77 percent of precincts reporting, Miller leads Murkowski 52 to 48 percent, a margin of about 3,000 votes. It will be at least a week before the final results are known. Miller is a Gulf War vet, former federal magistrate. He was endorsed by former Alaska governor Sarah Palin. Miller had spent less than $200,000 as of early August, compared with more than $1.4 million for Murkowski. But Miller received funding support from the Tea Party Express, which pumped about half-a-million dollars’ worth of advertising into Alaska airways ahead of the election.

Meanwhile, several other states held big races Tuesday.

In Arizona, Senator John McCain beat former congressman J.D. Hayworth by a wide margin in the state’s Republican primary. McCain spent more than $21 million in the race.

In Florida, Congressman Kendrick Meek defeated billionaire real estate mogul Jeff Greene in the state’s Democratic Senate primary. Greene lost the race despite spending as much as $26 million on his campaign. In Florida’s Republican gubernatorial primary, billionaire businessman Rick Scott pulled off an upset victory over Attorney General Bill McCollum. Scott poured in upwards of $30 million of his own money on the race.

For more on money and politics, we’re joined from Washington, DC, by Chuck Lewis, the founder of the Center for Public Integrity. He currently runs the Investigative Reporting Workshop at American University.

Chuck Lewis, welcome to Democracy Now! Talk about the significance of these primary races and how they relate to money.

CHARLES LEWIS: Well, they’re all incredibly interesting, and it’s hard to draw one single conclusion. What you mentioned about Alaska, I think, is possibly the most interesting of the states. In the case of Alaska, you have outside money coming in and a new group, obviously, active in politics in this country, the Tea Party movement, playing a role there. If Murkowski loses, that is absolutely huge, because, of course, her father was the governor, and that’s a big name up there, and she’s an incumbent and all those things. So, that’s a case of — I guess it’s the — part of it is the Pailin phenomenon. And, of course, whatever the Tea Party money, but also non-money, just people, did up there will emerge in the coming days.

In the case of Florida, there are a couple interesting cases. In the Meek election, the gazillionaire who went against him actually lost, despite spending a ton of money, because there were scandals about that person and suddenly began to fade in the polls in the last weeks of the — days of the campaign. But as you mentioned, in the last race, the McCollum race, the billionaire in that case won.

We have a problem in this country, as you and I have discussed over the years, of millionaires and billionaires substantially peopling our political process. I mean, several years ago, I know that 40 percent of the US Senate were millionaires, when less than one percent of the country are millionaires. I think those numbers are higher. I haven’t seen the latest numbers. But it could be as high as 50 or more percent now, just in the Senate alone. So, what is — what we’re seeing increasingly over these years, in a multi-year spread, is the increasing activity of outside groups that are influencing elections and self-funded candidates who basically have enough money to build up name recognition and to enter the public fray. And it’s very hard for an ordinary person, who may be immensely qualified, but not personally wealthy, to enter the political realm. And so, a lot of these elections are a reflection of that. In the McCain race, my understanding is he outspent his opponent, who was well known and has been around, but I think he outspent him, you know, seven or eight to one, at least, something like that, and a huge advantage financially. So, incumbents always generally win, and folks who have money, spend the most money, generally win. That’s as old as time itself, and it continues. There are a few interesting wrinkles, as we were just discussing.

AMY GOODMAN: I mean, of course, in the very close race in Alaska, Miller actually spent way less than Murkowski.


AMY GOODMAN: In the case of Kendrick Meek, he spent less. But in the case of the upset of Scott over McCollum in the gubernatorial race in Florida, I mean, he spent a remarkable amount of money. What was it? $39 million of his own money.

CHARLES LEWIS: Right. No, and that’s what — primaries and isolated elections, even in a handful of states, it’s often hard to draw conclusions, but what I was talking about are general broad trends. So you’re right. An underfunded candidate winning, perhaps, in the couple of the states you just mentioned, that’s unusual. What we don’t know — at least I don’t know enough — is the micro “why” part of that.

It sounds like, in the case of Florida, the very wealthy candidate against Meek imploded. Basically, his candidacy went south fast. And then, that’s a case where the media coverage of that was enough to decimate the candidacy, and money became a non-factor.

In the case of Alaska, a lot — lots of times grassroots activity and organizing, and low turnout, by the way — usually primaries have very low turnout, which means if you energize a group of people, you can actually — it can be noticed, and you can even win occasionally. And so, Alaska’s — I’d like to see the turnout numbers, and I’d love to know how much the Tea Party folks or groups on their behalf spent there, because the actual contribution numbers are obviously not the whole story.

AMY GOODMAN: And the money can be turned around very occasionally when that does become the issue and that really angers people, Meek spending, what, more than $2 million, but the self-funded Greene, his opponent, the real estate developer —-

CHARLES LEWIS: Mm-hmm, right.

AMY GOODMAN: —- spent more than $20 million of his own money. And that can really anger people when the media focuses on it.

CHARLES LEWIS: Yeah, especially when they have a 200-foot yacht and they’re ostentatious about their wealth and they’re also caught in public lies. Not at all helpful to a campaign.

AMY GOODMAN: The AP, the Associated Press, has called the Chamber of Commerce now, with Citizens United, the decision that allows corporate money to further flood elections and politics, has called the Chamber of Commerce the Third Estate. Talk about that, Chuck Lewis.

CHARLES LEWIS: Well, they are the Third Estate. And they have been a huge presence in Washington for several decades. Tom Donohue is the president, and he basically is an exceedingly aggressive president of a trade association. It’s not just a trade association; it is the preeminent corporate-funded institution in America today. And it does not have to disclose its donors. And, you know, they — he has made it — you know, they’re spending something — in the AP story, I think basically we’re talking $175 million to $200 million, when you add all the numbers up, that they’re trying to spend in just this year, basically, in terms of the election, both in their ads that are being spent around the country, their contributions by their various organizations. And, you know, they have been obviously a very vocal opponent against Obama’s policies on a number of cases — healthcare, the Wall Street bailout stuff, various of those pieces of legislation.

The other part about the AP story that’s kind of interesting that surprised me a little bit is they’re not always — they usually are, but they’re not always knee-jerk Republican. Normally the Chamber has always been heavily, closely aligned with the Republican Party. But money follows power, and if one party dominates both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue, there will be efforts devoted by groups like even the Chamber to get certain outcomes. According to the AP story, for example, the Chamber backed the auto bailout and the bank bailouts by the Obama administration, which, to some people, would seem somewhat surprising, only because they were siding with the White House.

But what is most disturbing about the Chamber, and this is true of all these groups with no disclosure, is the amounts of money are huge, and there’s also a keeping score. Donohue and his team at the Chamber keep very close tabs on who is with them and who isn’t and who their friends are and who there aren’t. And they’re very, very tenacious about punishing people who are not with them. And I think there are people throughout Washington, DC, that are actually afraid of the Chamber of Commerce. It is a very, very powerful force.

And the irony is that the Chamber of Commerce building is directly next to the AFL-CIO, you know, labor federation building. Both of these buildings, the heads of these groups, the head of labor and the head of business, both are on the top floor, their offices, and they look down on the White House. And that is a little bit misleading, because what labor unions do in this country is a small percentage of what the corporate community led by the Chamber.

And the other thing about the Chamber is that Chamber has the Business Roundtable, the National Association of Manufacturers and a whole array, half-a-dozen or more, at least — many more than that, probably — of other business-leaning groups, all spending astonishing sums of money. So — but the Chamber is the one who rallies all that activity. And, you know, the Chamber has been extremely aggressive in trying to block any climate change legislation or anything to do with the environment, of course. And what is interesting is some companies that are part of the Chamber are actually starting to disagree on that point, and there’s an internal dispute inside the Chamber’s members about what the Chamber policies ought to be. But they are an incredibly significant force, and it’s great the Associated Press did this story.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, I’m going to talk about another piece now, Chuck.


AMY GOODMAN: Chuck Lewis, you’re quoted in this major article in the latest issue of The New Yorker magazine by Jane Mayer —-


AMY GOODMAN: —- that profiles billionaire brothers Charles and David Koch, who have quietly given more than $100 million to right-wing causes. Jane Mayer writes, quote, “In Washington, [David] Koch is best known as part of a family that has repeatedly funded stealth attacks on the federal government, and on the Obama Administration in particular.

“With his brother Charles, who is seventy-four, David Koch owns virtually all of Koch Industries, a conglomerate, headquartered in Wichita, Kansas, whose annual revenues are estimated to be a hundred billion dollars…The Kochs operate oil refineries in Alaska, Texas, and Minnesota, and control some four thousand miles of pipeline. Koch Industries owns Brawny paper towels, Dixie cups, Georgia-Pacific lumber, Stainmaster carpet, and Lycra, among other products. Forbes ranks it as the second-largest private company in the country, after Cargill, and its consistent profitability has made David and Charles Koch — who, years ago, bought out two other brothers — among the richest men in America. Their combined fortune of thirty-five billion dollars is exceeded only by those of Bill Gates and Warren Buffett.”

The New Yorker piece goes on to say, “The Kochs are longtime libertarians who believe in drastically lower personal and corporate taxes, minimal social services for the needy, and much less oversight of industry — especially environmental regulation.”

Jane Mayer goes on to write, quote, “Indeed, the brothers have funded opposition campaigns against so many Obama Administration policies — from health-care reform to the economic-stimulus program — that, in political circles, their ideological network is known as the Kochtopus.”

Koch Industries has a response to the New Yorker article on its website. It reads, quote, “We submitted extensive facts and background information to the magazine. Given that all we provided did not change the publication’s negative, unbalanced tone and agenda, we declined their requests to speak to Koch executives. The story dredges up issues resolved long ago and mischaracterizes our business philosophy and principles, our practices and performance record, and the education efforts and policies we support.” It then goes on to address specific points like their environmental record, climate change, the groups Americans for Prosperity and Citizens for a Sound Economy, healthcare reform, and so on.

Well, Chuck Lewis, talk about the significance of these oil billionaires, the Koch brothers, and what their money, what more than $100 million funneled into right-wing causes, including climate change-denying groups, has meant.

CHARLES LEWIS: Well, yeah, I have been following the Koch brothers now — unofficially, I guess you’d say —- I mean, when I ran the Center for Public Integrity for fifteen years, I first brushed up against them because they were one of Bob Dole’s top ten career patrons. And then I wanted to see what -—

AMY GOODMAN: We should say Koch, by the way, is spelled K-O-C-H, for people who’ve seen it, but didn’t know how it’s pronounced.

CHARLES LEWIS: Yeah, K-O — yeah, right, not the soft drink, yeah.

Anyway, I started noticing this company some years ago. It is true, they have — I think the $100 million number may be a very conservative number by The New Yorker and by Jane Mayer. And by the way, the Koch Industries company and the Koch brothers essentially planted a very fawning profile of the Koch brothers in the New York Magazine days before as a way of preempting the New Yorker article. And they never consent to interviews. I tried to interview them for two different Buying of the President books, and they had no interest whatsoever in talking. And in one case, they mildly threatened to sue. So they are — these are very aggressive brothers and, of course, among the wealthiest people on planet earth.

What makes them different — we have seen rich people try to influence politics in America since the beginning of the republic. What makes them unusual —- and I’ve been around Washington since roughly around Watergate in the mid—'70s. What makes the Koch brothers unusual is the amount of money that they have spent, and done it in a stealthy, undisclosed manner. But we have — folks have found out over the years how much the money is: over $100 million, and it's probably much larger. That is almost entirely spent to further the interest of the Koch Industries. They are ideologues. Their father, Fred Koch, who started the company, was part of the John Birch Society. And so, we’re talking extreme right-wing ideologues. And to say that they believe in free enterprise is almost too mild to describe their politics. But what they have done is they have tried to subvert legislation that they saw would impact on their company.

Let me give you an example. And this is where I discovered their activities in the mid-'90s. I noticed not only that they were one of Robert Dole — then-Senate Majority Leader running for president against Bill Clinton — not only were they among his biggest donors ever in his long forty-four-year career, but I also noticed that they funded this thing called the Citizens for a Sound Economy, which there was no disclosure of the donors, but it was obvious they had given huge amounts of money, millions of dollars. They were being prosecuted for 300 oil spills by the Customs and EPA and Justice Department, parts of the federal government. And they asked the Senate Majority Leader to insert in the so-called regulatory reform legislation a clause that would get rid of any current prosecutive effort by the US government against Koch Industries. And it was — the person writing the draft for that legislation was the chair of the board of Citizens for a Sound Economy, former White House counsel in the first Bush administration Boyden Gray. This did not work, because several people died from bad hamburgers from an E. coli outbreak, and the public started to realize that maybe we do need regulation. And the whole idea for regulatory reform kind of eased, and that thing kind of went away. But the fact that this company tried to manipulate things to that extent just astonished me. I've never seen a bare-knuckles move like that quite so obvious. It was then discovered that they had cutout groups called Triad, and they were running attack ads in sixteen states, running it through a third party, another third party cutout, that were nonprofits running these outside group attack ads. And all the people being attacked were Democrats running against free enterprise Republicans in places where they had manufacturing facilities. And so, their activities are not only substantial and almost entirely undisclosed, in terms of how much they spend and where, but it’s virtually entirely for the furtherance of Koch Industries. And that’s what makes them so extraordinary, in my experience. I’ve never seen anything quite like these guys. And I did say in the Jane Mayer New Yorker article that Koch Industries is the Standard Oil of our time. This is a very powerful, almost entirely unknown company that is exceedingly aggressive in its tactics and its political maneuverings.

AMY GOODMAN: I mean, it’s very interesting, because, on the one hand, they’re funding the Tea Party and Tea Party organizations around the country that are growing.


AMY GOODMAN: And on the other hand, they’re funding for the arts. The article by Jane Mayer, called “Covert Operations: The Billionaire Brothers Who Are Waging a War Against Obama,” begins with a scene at the Metropolitan Opera House in New York, where they’re honoring — it’s the seventieth annual spring gala of the American Ballet Theatre. David Koch is being honored. He had recently given two-and-a-half million to the company’s upcoming season. He was standing next to Caroline Kennedy Schlossberg. Only Michelle Obama wasn’t there, who was supposed to be there, and maybe we now know why, though they said a scheduling conflict. The Kochs have donated a million dollars to modernize Lincoln Center’s New York State Theatre building, which now bears its name, David Koch’s name. He’s given $20 million to the American Museum of Natural History, whose dinosaur wing is named for him. This spring, after noticing the decrepit state of fountains outside the Metropolitan Museum of Art, he pledged $10 million to renovate them. And he serves on the board of Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center, where, after he donated more than $40 million, an endowed chair and research center were named for him.

Now, later in the piece, it’s very interesting, because it talks about the fact that Koch Industries became a major producer of formaldehyde after it bought Georgia-Pacific, the paper and wood products company, for $21 billion. So Jane Mayer asked James Huff, an associate director at the National Institute for Environmental Health Sciences, a division of the NIH, about this. He said it was “disgusting” for Koch to be serving on the National Cancer Advisory Board. Huff said, “It’s just not good for public health. Vested interests should not be on the board.” He went on, “Those boards are very important. They’re very influential as to whether N.C.I. goes into formaldehyde or not. Billions of dollars are involved in formaldehyde.”

And then she quotes Harold Varmus, the director of the National Cancer Institute, who knows David Koch from Memorial Sloan-Kettering, which he used to run. He said, at Sloan-Kettering, “a lot of people who gave to us had large business interests. The one thing we wouldn’t tolerate [in our board members is] tobacco.” When told of Koch Industries’ stance on formaldehyde, Varmus said he was “surprised.”

Charles Lewis, talk about the link between the chemical companies that they’re involved with and also just the Koch brothers’ funding of Tea Party movements and organizations.

CHARLES LEWIS: Right. You know, the chemical companies, my — the Center for Public Integrity investigated formaldehyde and the chemical companies. And the industry, in general, has always tried, of course, to avoid regulation, to keep formaldehyde legal, so they can continue to make money. And they have infiltrated groups like the American Cancer Society and all kinds of other groups. So, industries getting in the face of and in penetrating inside the federal worlds of these regulatory agencies is, as you know, a long and old and very sad story.

That article also mentions the Smithsonian has an exhibit that basically has clearly anti-climate change, you know, sort of conservative-slash-oil industry rhetoric about that whole subject of how the world has evolved and how warm is it getting and all that stuff. And the idea that there’s the Koch — this the Koch wing of the Smithsonian, but then you find out that the exhibits kind of reflect the Koch Industries’ view of the world. This oil company’s view of the world is, I think, incredibly disturbing. If I was a trustee at the Smithsonian or these other places, or Congress, having oversight, I think these are significant issues. I don’t know the extent to which anything will happen, but it’s outrageous.

You know, I have followed Koch pretty closely, but I didn’t actually know about the Tea Party involvement, really, to the extent that Jane Mayer lays it out. It’s totally predictable, now that I think about it, because they also helped to fund the term limit movement and the Libertarian Party as far back as 1980. Libertarians, of course, don’t believe in any environmental regulation. And so, the Tea Party thing is just the latest example, but, as Jane points out, is the most populist one. It’s got — they’ve actually found a public out there, so it’s not a top-down. It’s actually — it starts to have the public appearance of being grassroots. What most Americans don’t know is that these folks are trained by and taught, “educated,” quote-unquote, by Americans for Prosperity, a Koch Industry group. So now we know who’s funding the Tea Party movement, and I think this article is a very constructive thing for the public to get the truth about what’s really going on with these folks.

AMY GOODMAN: And you have President Obama actually naming them. Jane Mayer says, “The Kochs have long depended on the public’s not knowing [all the] details about them. They have been content to operate what David Koch has called 'the largest company that you’ve never heard of.' But with the growing prominence of the Tea Party, and with increased awareness of the Kochs’ ties to the movement, the brothers may find it harder to deflect scrutiny.” Recently, President Obama, in Austin, at a Democratic National Committee fundraiser, said — he warned supporters that the Supreme Court’s recent ruling in the Citizens United case, which struck down laws prohibiting direct corporate spending on campaigns, had made it even easier for big companies to hide behind what Obama said were “groups with harmless-sounding names like Americans for Prosperity.” Obama said, “They don’t have to say who, exactly, Americans for Prosperity are. You don’t know if it’s a foreign-controlled corporation,” or even, he added, “a big oil company.”

Last thirty seconds, Charles Lewis?

CHARLES LEWIS: Well, this is a problem we have, and it’s a problem we have with both parties, of these cutout groups that have nice-sounding names and we have no idea what they’re doing. It’s dangerous for a president, in a way, to single out a group, because Bill Clinton tried it during the healthcare debate, and it brought the president of the United States down to the level of a trade association or a nonprofit. But what Obama said is correct. We don’t know who these people are. We don’t know what they’re about. There should be disclosure about these groups, and there isn’t. And, you know, we have a wild and untenable atmosphere when it comes to political discourse in this country, because money is going to rule everything here. It already has for years, and it’s going to get worse.

AMY GOODMAN: Charles Lewis, thanks so much for joining us, founder and former president of the Center for Public Integrity, now teaching Investigative Reporting Workshop at American University. We will link to Jane Mayer’s very important piece in The New Yorker called “Covert Operations: The Billionaire Brothers Who Are Waging a War Against Obama.”

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The New Yorker: Billionaire Brothers Charles & David Koch Have Quietly Given More Than $100 Million to Right-Wing Causes

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