WASHINGTON — San Joaquin Valley voters could see corporations pour more money than ever before into this year's congressional campaigns.
But will they?
In theory, a controversial Supreme Court ruling now enables corporations and potentially unions to spend unlimited amounts during the climactic final weeks of political campaigns. In practice, some political pros expect caution.
"I think corporations will be too wimpy to get very involved," said Rep. Devin Nunes, R-Visalia. "I don't agree that this is going to be some big boon for Republicans."
Fresno-area businessman and GOP activist Tal Cloud agrees that local corporations are unlikely to directly weigh in on the elections, though not for lack of desire.
"It's certainly legal that they can do that, but being legal and having the sophistication level of putting it together, there's a big stretch there," Cloud said. "There's just not enough sophistication in the Valley to do it."
Democrats hope Nunes and Cloud are right, even as they try to raise alarms about fat-cat businessmen buying elections.
"It opens the floodgates to a corporate takeover of our elections and invites unrestricted special interest dollars in our campaigns," House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said of the court's Jan. 21, 2010 ruling.
The November general election is the first to take place under the liberalized campaign spending rules established under the court's 5-4 ruling in the case called Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission.
The ruling struck down part of a 2002 campaign finance reform law, which banned corporations and unions from using their own funds to promote or attack a candidate within 30 days of a primary or 60 days of a general election.
"Because speech is an essential mechanism of democracy — it is the means to hold officials accountable to the people — political speech must prevail against laws that would suppress it," Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote for the narrow majority.
There are several ways in which corporations or unions can invest in a political campaign. The Citizens United ruling covered only one type of spending, called "independent expenditures."
Independent expenditures differ from direct corporate or union contributions to candidates. The latter are still limited and must still be made via political action committees. When Blue Shield of California in May contributed $2,500 to Republican congressional candidate Jeff Denham of Atwater, for instance, the company had to use its PAC.
The Supreme Court's ruling also didn't touch so-called "issue ads," which avoid explicitly urging viewers to vote for or against a candidate. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce, for instance, aired ads earlier this year designed to persuade Reps. Jim Costa, D-Fresno, and Dennis Cardoza, D-Merced, to oppose a health care reform bill.
Cardoza estimated the health care ads cost several hundred thousand dollars; but, because they didn't explicitly urge a vote for or against a candidate, it was not the type of campaign covered by the Supreme Court's ruling.
"I wasn't particularly happy that it was going on," Cardoza said.
A corporate independent expenditure, the kind that is now permitted under the Supreme Court's ruling, is different. Consider, for instance, the Senate race pitting Democratic Sen. Barbara Boxer against former Hewlett-Packard chief executive officer Carly Fiorina.
Hypothetically, under the new ruling, Hewlett-Packard could now spend corporate money running ads urging Californians to vote for either Boxer or Fiorina. There is no indication the company has any such plans.
In the Valley, Cloud thinks a group of like-minded companies could join forces to form an organization that would put together an independent expenditure supporting or opposing a candidate.
"I don't know if the (court's) decision will result in a net increase in overall spending, as much as a different mechanism of spending money," Modesto-area political consultant Mike Lynch said. "The motivated giver has always had a myriad of ways to engage, and that hasn't changed."
William Lutz, senior director of the Defenders of Wildlife Action Fund, agreed the implications of the court's ruling are still being sorted out. The environmental group spent about $150,000 on ads this year attacking former Rep. Richard Pombo of Tracy, who was attempting a congressional comeback.