Eric Cantor, the House Majority Leader, just suffered a humiliating loss in the Virginia primary. Overnight, he goes from being one of the most powerful people in Washington to just another K Street insider.
I don’t feel sorry for him, and even will indulge in a little Schadenfreude at the idea of a politician being humbled – even if the guy who beat him has even more reprehensible politics than the soul-less Cantor.
But his loss helps bring into focus one of the key points I’ve been trying to make to those apoplectic about the Supreme Court’s perceived loosening of campaign finance regulation in the Citizens United and McCutcheon decisions: money just isn’t as important as it used to be when it comes to campaigns.
But first, I need to point out a couple of key points that many of those in favor of campaign finance regulation gloss over:
- Political speech of all stripes is at the core of the First Amendment; and
- The government carries a very high burden to show that regulation of speech that is otherwise protected by the First Amendment is both necessary and narrowly focused at a particular harm.
This is why quid pro quo, direct campaign contributions are an easy case, and why broad restrictions of the sort at play in Citizens United and McCutcheon were doomed to fail. It’s hard to regulate speech – you’ve got to have a very real harm and a very targeted, effective means of addressing that harm. And this is how it should be; it’s no place for “feel good” legislation.
But for those frustrated that the First Amendment prohibits the sort of government speech control they’d like to see, the Cantor result should be seen as a panacea. Perhaps they don’t need to wail about the injustice of it all, propose ridiculous constitutional amendments, and engage in spin (“Corporations Aren’t People! “Money isn’t Speech!”) worthy of the most hackneyed campaign. For Cantor’s loss – which follows the poor ROI of campaign spending in the 2012 and 2014 national campaigns – demonstrates that it’s getting harder for money to “buy” elections. For grass roots groups, it’s never been cheaper and easier to organize and get the word out. If you’ve got a message that resonates, social media provides the sort of publishing platform that only the most plutocratic of plutocrats could afford a generation ago.
In Virginia tonight, a challenger with less than a quarter million in campaign funds knocked off the second-highest ranking member of the House, an incumbent with millions of dollars at his disposal. This should be seen as very good news to those who want the “corrupting power of money” out of the process – even as it provides further evidence that attempting to regulate campaign speech may be as unnecessary as it is unconstitutional.