Bob Kerrey's (Sort-of) Helpful Billionaire Backer Warren Buffett

Reporting on Politics and Policy.
June 26 2012 5:29 PM

Bob Kerrey's (Sort-of) Helpful Billionaire Backer Warren Buffett

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WASHINGTON - JUNE 17: Bob Kerrey, commission member, speaks during a 9/11 Commission hearing June 17, 2004 in Washington, DC. The commission is holding its twelfth and final public hearing and is investigating the intelligence failures leading up to the 9/11 terrorist attacks. (Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images)

Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images

Bob Kerrey, the Nebraska Democrat getting overwhelmed on the television airwaves by Republican Super PACs as he tries to win back his old Senate seat this fall, is grateful that he's getting a little help from his friends.

But just one friend could be making all the difference in the world, if only he would get over his reservations about playing hardball on the post-Citizens United campaign finance terrain. 

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Warren Buffett, the local billionaire who is among the world's richest men, will be holding an Omaha fundraiser for Kerrey, as Politico reported Monday, helping hoard cash for a campaign that is looked upon with great skepticism by the conservative movement and neutral election forecasters alike.

The help should be great news for Kerrey. Except Buffett is lending his financial support to the two-term senator's campaign -- which must observe legal limits on how many dollars it can collect from every individual and organization -- and has said definitively that he will not back a Super PAC on Kerrey's behalf. He won't be another Sheldon Adelson, investing significant chunks of his personal fortune into partisan politics.

Which means Buffett won't do much to help Kerrey, the former president of the New School in Manhattan, to counter the millions of dollars in unaccountable GOP campaign cash going toward negative TV ads about his abandoning his home for New York City.

As I reported two weeks ago, Kerrey is among those Democratic heavyweights frustrated that his party's wealthiest donors are refusing to wade more deeply into the world of Dark Money.

And he won't be the last.

"If progressives or pro-Democratic donors continue to avoid Super PAC donations or continue to show an unwillingness to make large contributions, that will place even greater strain on the candidates in the party since they are likely to face a significant financial disadvantage with respect to outside group funding," says Anthony Corrado, an expert on money in politics at Colby College in Maine. "To the extent that Democrats and major Democratic donors decide not to support these outside groups, it increases the prospects of seeing a financial advantage for the Republicans throughout the rest of the election cycle."

Indeed, reached by phone Tuesday, Kerrey said he was grateful for Buffett's show of financial support but hinted that some Super PAC help might have been even better.

"It’s the difference between a plastic gun and buying real shells for a .44 magnum," he said of the distinction between traditional campaign ads and Super PAC spots broadcast by groups with innocuous names like Karl Rove's "American Crossroads" or the Koch brothers-backed "Americans For Prosperity."

"It’s not possible for American Crossroads or Americans for Prosperity to get too negative," Kerrey said. He added that he didn't begrudge his "old friend" Buffett for having principled objections to Super PAC donations. Besides, it might not make a difference at this point anyway.

"In some ways, it’s almost too late," he said. "It’s more likely in the 2013-2014 cycle, that people will reassess what they’ve done," -- that is, liberals will wake up to the need for massive donations to Super PACs and other shadowy groups to stay competitive with the GOP.

That being said, it's not clear that even if he were matching Republicans when it comes to outside money that Kerrey would be winning this race.

"The Super PAC disadvantage is second to the fact that there are way more Republicans in Nebraska than there are Democrats," said Michael Wagner, a political scientist at the University of Nebraska at Lincoln and an expert on local politics.

Of course, the spending gap isn't making things any easier.

Matt Taylor is a reporter living in Brooklyn. He was the political correspondent for the National Memo and a staff reporter at his hometown newspaper, The East Hampton Star. He's a contributor to Newsweek/The Daily Beast. You can reach him on Twitter @matthewt_ny