When I asked Karl Rove what he thought would be the fallout from the recent U.S. Supreme Court ruling allowing direct corporate and union political contributions, the veteran political strategist was uncharacteristically at a loss for words.
"I'm not sure we do know," said Rove, who was President George W. Bush's chief strategist.
As I talked with Democratic and Republican consultants, lawyers and elections experts last week, there seemed to be little consensus about the impact of the court's ruling, except that North Carolina and the country are headed into uncharted territory in the fall elections.
But here are some educated guesses. The court ruling will help incumbents of both parties, special interests, especially big business and big labor, and provide a bit more of an edge to Republicans than Democrats.
Those most hurt by the ruling will likely be challengers, grass-roots efforts and candidates without powerful connections. In other words, the court ruling will lock in some of the trends we have seen in American politics during the last decade.
In the Citizens United case, the Supreme Court ruled that corporations and labor unions can make direct contributions to independent campaigns, as long as they are not coordinated with individual candidates. They are still barred from making direct contributions to candidates.
The ruling overturns North Carolina's law banning direct contributions.
This means that in the fall elections, a corporation that wants to influence an election can write a check for $1 million, rather than having to raise it in small increments from its executives. It opens the door for an insurance company to use its financial clout to tip an election toward a candidate who opposes Democratic health care plans. Or, it could allow a public employees union to tip an election to a candidate who will vote to allow state and local workers to engage in collective bargaining.
Corporations usually favor incumbents regardless of party, said Carter Wrenn, a longtime GOP strategist. Their companies and their lobbyists have long-term relationships with certain key lawmakers, and are likely to use their money to help their allies in Washington and Raleigh.
Because more corporate and union money will likely end up being spent with independent campaigns, the candidates will have less control over the message. That could mean more negative TV ads.
In the end, the Supreme Court ruling may have been an endorsement of politics as usual.
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