Surrounded by dozens of supporters at an evening campaign rally in Madison on May 30, Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett, the Democratic candidate for governor in Wisconsin's tumultuous recall election, had something encouraging to tell the crowd: The fact his opponent, Republican Gov. Scott Walker, was outspending him by more than seven to one was no big deal.
"He's got the mountains of money," Mr. Barrett declared. "I've got you."
Now, Mr. Barrett probably wishes he'd had the mountains of money. On Tuesday night, Mr. Walker turned back the union-driven effort to toss him out of office, beating Mr. Barrett by a comfortable seven percentage points.
Less than two years into his first term in office, Mr. Walker became a recall target after stripping Wisconsin's state employees of their collective bargaining rights. Thousands of teachers and other public employees marched on the capitol building. It looked as if Mr. Walker had a mighty army arrayed against him.
But Mr. Walker had something more potent than an army: billionaires.
The governor put together a nationwide fundraising effort and was richly rewarded. Two-thirds of the $31 million Mr. Walker raised to fight the recall came from out-of-state donors, mostly rich guys who hate unions. The gush of cash going to Mr. Walker overwhelmed Mr. Barrett's boots-on-the-ground effort and provided more proof, if any more were needed, that the U.S. Supreme Court's Citizens United ruling eliminating limits on campaign donations has dramatically altered the balance of power in American politics.
The Citizens United decision does not apply to big corporations alone; it also frees unions to give as much as they want. But the fact is, unions do not have ready access to money on the scale of the billionaire boys club. When just one man, casino king Sheldon Adelman, can write a couple of checks and fund Newt Gingrich's entire presidential campaign, you know the craps table of electioneering has been tilted in favor of candidates who look after the concerns of the mega-rich.
And, guess what? Most of those candidates, just like most billionaires, are Republicans.
Occupy Wall Street enthusiasts can camp out on the sidewalk and conduct their exquisitely egalitarian group discussions. Anarchists can gleefully smash windows at Bank of America and Starbucks. Union members can set up phone banks and carry picket signs. But as long as elections are there to be bought, a handful of billionaires will have a far louder voice in who runs the country than all the activists on the left combined.
As evidence, I offer exhibits one and two: David and Charles Koch, the billionaires that Democrats love to hate. These oil magnates are generous sugar daddies for the tea party and conservative candidates all over America. According to the Obama campaign, the Koch brothers have pledged $200 million to defeat the president in November. Others say the Kochs are only putting up $60 million. Either way, that is a big chunk of change from just two voters.
The vanity of rich men used to be stoked by buying yachts and racehorses and baseball teams. Now, the indulgence of choice seems to be the purchase of governors and congressmen and -- who knows? -- maybe even a president.
Two-time Pulitzer Prize winner David Horsey is a political commentator for the Los Angeles Times. Go to latimes.com/news/politics/topoftheticket/ to see more of his work.