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Private Wealth and the Public Interest: Sherrod Brown Under Attack

David Callahan

Forget those jumbo checks Sheldon Adelson wrote for Newt Gingrich in the GOP primary, or even the big money that Romney is pulling in now from wealthy bundlers. The most dramatic illustration of how private wealth is perverting elections can be found in Ohio, where Senator Sherrod Brown is being pummeled by inaccurate negative ads funded by conservative outside groups and super PACs.

Among the biggest spenders is the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which reportedly had spent $3.8 million on ads in Ohio by early June. The Chamber, in fact, has been attacking Brown for many months -- and back in December was even found to have doctored a photo of Brown in an attack ad to make him look unshaven. Other groups, like Crossroads GPS, are also spending heavily against Brown, with the senator's campaign estimating that $10 million has already come into Ohio from outside groups to take him out. Brown has been helped by unions and liberal groups, but is still being heavily outspent.

A few months ago, Brown had a huge lead. Now he's up by just a few points. Attacks ads work.

So what did Sherrod Brown do to become a magnet for so much outside money? He stood up for working class and middle class voters. He supported healthcare reform, the Dodd-Frank Act, the Buffett Rule, and many other progressive economic policies. Brown, in fact, is one of the most liberal senators in the chamber -- making him the perfect target for big business and wealthy conservatives.

It's not just the direct spending against Brown that will determine his fate. As the New York Times recently reported, voters in Ohio and other states have also been deluged by ads attacking the healthcare law, which Brown supported.

In all, about $235 million has been spent on ads attacking the law since its passage in March 2010, according to a recent survey by Kantar Media’s Campaign Media Analysis Group. Only $69 million has been spent on advertising supporting it.

The Times' piece reported that the ads seem to be shaping voters' opinion of the law, with many repeating inaccurate claims hammered home by the blitz. This means that when Brown explains his vote for healthcare reform, he must labor to overcome misimpressions fostered by self-interested actors.

All of this adds up to a rather unnerving picture. Democracy can only work properly when you have an informed electorate. But what happens when deep pocketed interests not only shape the broader discussion of policy with misinformation, but also attack specific lawmakers with deceptive ads?

Nothing good.