Sept. 19--This column was originally published Jan. 27, 2010
As high-powered consultants plot strategy in the race for U.S. Sen. Barbara Boxer's seat, they should factor in Sandy Greiner, a 64-year-old grandmother six times over from Keota, Iowa.
Greiner, her husband and their three sons farm corn and soybeans in a town with fewer than 1,000 people in southeastern Iowa. Don't let appearances deceive you.
Greiner and people like her suddenly became more important to American politics last week because of a landmark U.S. Supreme Court ruling and the stunning vote in Massachusetts.
Sandra H. Greiner is no neophyte. After 16 years in the Iowa Legislature ending in 2008, she became president of American Future Fund, a nonprofit corporation that espouses limited taxes and opposes President Barack Obama's economic policies and health care proposals.
Entities like Greiner's operate in the shadows. Their donors are anonymous. The power behind them is rarely apparent. It's impossible to track the exact amounts they spend on campaigns in any timely fashion.
Last week's Supreme Court decision opened the way for corporations and unions to spend directly on federal campaigns, which means that groups like Greiner's will be infused with yet more money. Unless federal law is changed, they and their donors will remain hidden from the voting public.
To get an idea of how they operate, look at the race to fill the seat left vacant when Sen. Edward Kennedy died in Massachusetts. That contest portends what could happen in California and in several other states this year.
As Greiner told me by phone this week, she paid attention early to Republican Scott Brown's seemingly quixotic effort to capture the seat controlled for more than half a century by the strongest Democratic dynasty in American history.
No single individual turned the tide against Democratic candidate Martha Coakley. But Greiner's American Future Fund was the first outside organization to enter the fray, launching a television ad 12 days before the election attacking Coakley over taxes.
By the time it was over, American Future Fund had spent about $500,000, and others had piled on with millions more. Republican Brown won in a stunning upset.
"Nobody saw it coming, " Greiner said.
Greiner doesn't hide her pride. American Future Fund raises less than 1 percent of its money from Massachusetts. Nor does it raise much from that other Democratic stronghold, California. But she was able to insert herself into one of the biggest upsets ever in U.S. politics.
"This is the fun part of politics, " Greiner said. "It is fun to sit and dream up stuff that is going to have to make somebody stop what they're doing, and figure out how to respond."
Greiner had plenty of help.
McCarthy Marcus Hennings, Ltd., produced the ads. The firm works for clients that have stakes in federal affairs, including Goldman Sachs, American Insurance Association and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, plus the National Republican Senatorial Committee and Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell.
McCarthy Marcus specializes in independent campaigns. One of its principals produced the infamous Willie Horton ads that helped derail Michael Dukakis' 1988 presidential bid.
Business will pick up for such firms. The high court's decision in Citizens United v. the Federal Election Commission specifically permits corporations to spend on independent federal campaigns.
Pundits from the left fret that the ruling will alter democracy as we know it. From the right, proponents say the ruling reaffirms the First Amendment by granting corporations the rights as individuals.
Both views contain truth. Here's another truth: The public will never know how much corporations or unions give to political groups such as Greiner's. So long as donors want anonymity, the federal system provides ways to spend money without ever being publicly identified.
American Future Fund is a nonprofit corporation similar to the Sierra Club or the National Rifle Association. Such groups file tax returns publicly. But there is no requirement that they identify donors.
Anonymity is one reason people give to such groups. They don't want the "annoyance" of being publicly identified, Greiner said.
Greiner raises some money by sending regular e-mail solicitations. She also relies on larger donors, attracted by the group's message and by the knowledge that they will never be identified.
Some donors fear they might incur the wrath of people who oppose their views. Others know that if they were to donate to candidates, their names would become public, and other candidates would solicit. Once a donor's name becomes public, "everybody else and their dog (is) wanting a piece of the pie, " Greiner said.
Will Greiner jump into the California Senate race?
She says she doesn't know. The roughly $500,000American Future Fund spent in Massachusetts would not go far here, where a week's worth of television time costs $2.5 million or more.
But as Greiner showed voters in Massachusetts, people who help swing the outcome of elections can live halfway across the country.
With the right message and backing, they reach into any state in the union and have an impact on an election. Now that the bosses who control corporations and unions can spend freely on federal elections, they will -- and most of us will never see it coming.
For more information about American Future Fund, please go to The Swarm blog, www.sacbee.com/swarm.
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