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Mitch McConnell’s dark secret: he used to support campaign finance reform

McConnell called money in politics a “cancer” in a 1973 op-ed. Then he ran for Senate.

Mitch McConnell during a press conference on campaign finance and the McCain-Feingold bill.
Douglas Graham/Congressional Quarterly/Getty Images

These days, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell regularly scoffs at Democrats’ sweeping anti-corruption bill to set up more transparency around money in politics, and promote expanded voting rights.

But 46 years ago, he praised many of the ideas that the bill, known as HR 1, contains. He called money in politics a “cancer” in a 1973 Courier-Journal op-ed about a local campaign finance ordinance that he complained didn’t go far enough to address the issue (Fred Wertheimer at Democracy 21 first published the McConnell op-ed).

“The lack of an overall limit on spending is an open invitation for special interests to circumvent this ordinance and lavishly finance future candidates, regardless of the limitations on amounts of individual contributions,” McConnell wrote.

“With regard to a spending limitation, past events have shown how close we are to a ‘bought’ nation, state and city,” he continued, complaining that the recent Louisville-Jefferson County Democratic primary cost more than $400,000 (an amount that would be $2.2 million today, adjusted for inflation).

McConnell wrote this many years before he entered the Senate, when he was the chair of the Republican Party of Jefferson County, Kentucky, and an attorney in Louisville. But even though he was critiquing a local elections ordinance, he was definitely thinking of the big picture. The then-young Republican offered prescriptions to eradicate the “cancer” of money in politics that included calling for public financing of elections, publicly disclosing all political donors, and putting spending limits on elections.

“Realistically, this ordinance merely applies a Band-Aid to a cancer by controlling only a portion of the many corrupt — or potentially corrupt — campaign practices involving the raising and spending of money for electioneering,” he wrote.

The irony, of course, is that McConnell has become the face of money in politics, and by his own account — a fierce defender of special interests being able to spend unlimited amounts on elections. He’s repeatedly attacked HR 1 — House Democrats’ first bill of the year — as an attempt to turn America into a land of one-party rule.

“They’re trying to clothe this power grab with cliches about ‘restoring democracy’ ... but their proposal is simply a naked attempt to change the rules of American politics to benefit one party,” McConnell wrote in a recent op-ed. “I have previously indicated and now reiterate my support for complete disclosure of ALL donors, regardless of the size of the contributions.”

McConnell’s thinking on campaign finance reform has changed dramatically

McConnell’s thinking about campaign finance reform has changed significantly since he was a young lawyer in Kentucky. The leader of Senate Republicans wrote about how his views on campaign finance shifted in his 2016 memoir, The Long Game.

In part, it came during his own run for higher office.

“On a more personal level, my first run for the Senate brought these issues to light in a concrete way,” McConnell wrote in his memoir. “I never would have been able to win my race if there had been a limit on the amount of money I could raise and spend.”

Rather than continuing to take up the mantle for getting money out of politics, McConnell went in the opposite direction when he made it to the Senate, coming up with the idea to filibuster a major finance reform bill in 1990, ultimately leading to the bill’s death.

McConnell has repeatedly explained his turnaround on campaign finance, saying he believes this issue is inextricably tied to constitutionally protected free speech.

“To put it simply, enacting limits on what people can spend in an election ultimately limits the very discourse the First Amendment was designed to protect,” McConnell wrote in his memoir. “For the framers of the Constitution, the highest form of speech — the one most needful of absolute protection — is political speech, particularly at those moments of national decision we call elections.”

The Senate majority leader has used a similar argument to attack HR 1’s attempts to expose the donors behind Super PACs and dark money groups that contribute to an ever-more-moneyed political system. In his Washington Post op-ed last month, McConnell wrote that disclosing who is spending money in elections, and a constitutional amendment overturning Citizens United, would be a blow to free speech and free association. The 2010 Supreme Court decision on Citizens United was in effect a ruling giving corporations the same powers as citizens when it came to political spending.

“Under this bill, you’d keep your right to free association as long as your private associations were broadcast to everyone,” McConnell wrote.

And on public financing of elections, an idea in HR 1 he embraced as a young attorney, he now believes it’s the federal government trying to use taxpayer dollars “to enrich campaign consultants.”

The 2018 midterms cost $5.7 billion, according to an analysis from OpenSecrets. That makes them the most expensive midterms in US history, and the second most expensive American election in history, behind the 2016 presidential race.

$5.7 billion is a long way from the $400,000 McConnell was so upset about being spent in Kentucky primaries in 1973. The man who called money in politics a “cancer” back then helped get us here.

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