Democrats Revisit Campaign Plans In Wake Of Ruling

Lawmakers are absorbing the Supreme Court's decision allowing corporations and unions to spend money directly on campaigns — and coming to grips with how it will affect them in the 2010 election year.

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Members of Congress are suddenly rethinking everything they thought they knew about elections, and even the political dynamics in their home districts. This comes in the wake of a Supreme Court ruling that said corporations and unions could spend money directly on campaigns. NPR's Andrea Seabrook reports.

ANDREA SEABROOK: First it was shock. Lawmakers on all sides of the issue were surprised by how far reaching the Supreme Court decision was. Now, two weeks later, the realities are starting to sink in.

Representative JIM LANGEVIN (Democrat, Rhode Island): Well, this is, obviously, something we all have to consider and look at now.

SEABROOK: Democrat Jim Langevin of Rhode Island. He says the Supreme Court's decision was totally wrong, that Congress must pass new laws to rein corporate influence on campaigns. But...

Rep. LANGEVIN: We all have to play by the rules as they're presented, and if one side is taking advantage of the laws as they are and the other ones are not, then someone's at a disadvantage.

SEABROOK: Many Democrats are worried, really worried, that they could be vulnerable. Another Congressman, Republican Joe Barton of Texas, thinks everyone's a little overly anxious about this. Remember, Barton says, this is not about cash donations.

Representative JOE BARTON (Republican, Texas): It's not giving corporate money to the campaign committees or to the candidate, it's using their own money to say Congressman Joe Barton is doing a good job. Please vote for Joe Barton in the upcoming election. Paid for by uh - oh, I don't know, Texas Industries.

SEABROOK: Barton does recognize, though, that the effect will likely be to pump more money into the political system overall. But he doesn't think that's worse for the Democrats.

Rep. BARTON: There are a whole bunch of major corporations in America that are headed by very patriotic Democrats, and I think, in terms of how it impacts the street, it's probably 50-50.

SEABROOK: I don't think so, says Democrat Elijah Cummings of Maryland.

Representative ELIJAH CUMMINGS (Democrat, Maryland): It can have a devastating effect on a candidate like me.

SEABROOK: For example, Cummings says, in recent months he has railed against Wall Street banks that took government bailouts and are now paying their employees million-dollar bonuses again.

Rep. CUMMINGS: So, they could run an ad or ads saying Elijah Cummings is a bad guy because he doesn't support business, which is not true, of course, but that could be very harmful, and I don't even know how I even raise the money to counter that. I mean, in a good year, in a good year, I might be able to raise $750,000. That's in a good year.

SEABROOK: Cummings' district includes some of the poorest sections of Baltimore. He has trouble raising funds, he says, because many of his constituents don't have cash to give. By contrast, he says:

Rep. CUMMINGS: You know, when you got corporations giving away millions and billions of dollars of bonuses, to spend a few million dollars on one legislator who has constantly been a thorn to them, that's peanuts.

SEABROOK: Then again, says Texas Republican Louie Gohmert, the voters aren't easily duped.

Representative LOUIE GOHMERT (Republican, Texas): You know, Americans, traditionally, tend toward an underdog. And if you know you've got a massive multimillion dollar corporation trying to quash some poor candidate, then it often backfires.

SEABROOK: One thing is essential, Gohmert says, transparency.

Rep. GOHMERT: The trick is knowing who's paying for it, who owns the corporation, where is their interest line, do they have an ulterior motive.

SEABROOK: Put everything out in the open, says Gohmert, and that may be something Republicans and Democrats can agree on - that and the fact that politically, the whole game has changed.

Andrea Seabrook, NPR News, the Capitol.

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