The influence of billionaires in the post-Citizens United era is in no way limited to the 2016 presidential and congressional elections.
While the super-wealthy dominate those races, local and state elections in 2015 are also attracting big money from Forbes-listed billionaires and local wealthy interests that’s funneled through super PACs.
Not all states, cities and municipalities hold elections on even-numbered years. On Nov. 3, voters in Kentucky and Mississippi will hold gubernatorial and legislative elections, and voters in New Jersey and Virginia will vote on legislative candidates. Louisiana held its pre-runoff election for governor and many other down-ballot races on Oct. 24, and will hold a runoff on Nov. 21. Many other cities and municipalities have held or will hold elections this year, including Chicago, Philadelphia, Nashville and Dallas, among many others.
Super PACs and nonprofits — in some cases connected to a single candidate — have taken on a dominant role in many of these elections. Super PAC spending on state and local elections often has more of a direct influence on government than spending on the more talked-about 2016 presidential election. In many cases, donations to these unlimited money groups come from developers, contractors and special interest groups looking to gain special favors from their local government.
“When you look at smaller races, the relative importance of outside spending increases, both in terms of outcome of election and influencing policy,” said Rick Hasen, a University of California, Irvine law professor and author of the forthcoming Plutocrats United: Campaign Money, the Supreme Court, and the Distortion of American Elections.
Super PACs emerged after the Supreme Court’s 2010 Citizens United decision opened the door to unlimited donations from corporations, unions and — following a related lower court ruling — wealthy individuals, so long as they remain independent of candidates. The court’s belief in such independence has not, however, played out in the real world.