Vol. 26 No. 2 (June 2016) pp. 32-34

INTEREST GROUPS UNLEASHED, by Paul Herrnson, Christopher Deering, and Clyde Wilcox (eds.). Thousand Oaks, CA: CQ Press, 2013. 285pp. Paper $39.00 ISBN 978-1452203782

Reviewed by Christopher J. Wolfe, Politics Department, University of Dallas. Email:

The 2010 midterm election was a significant election for many reasons and for many different areas of study. It was most certainly an election that deserved to be studied from the standpoint of the interest groups involved. INTEREST GROUPS UNLEASHED is a collection of essays focusing on the strategies, tactics, and performance of several groups which tried to influence that election.

2010 featured a changed regulatory environment for interest groups. It was the first national election in the wake of the 2008 Supreme Court ruling CITIZENS UNITED V. FEC (which struck down Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act restrictions on corporations and unions spending money on media campaigns directly advocating a candidate) and the 2010 lower court ruling SPEECHNOW.ORG V. FEC (which struck down donation limits on PACs that did not contribute directly to candidates, i.e. super PACs). These cases compounded the effects of the earlier 2007 Supreme Court ruling WISCONSIN RIGHT TO LIFE V. FEC (which expanded the power of outside groups to run ads just before an election). Thus the 2010 election offered a unique opportunity to study a cause and effect: the changes to the law as the cause, and the change in the amount of money spent on electioneering as the effect. Herrnson, Deering, and Wilcox conclude that interest groups were indeed “unleashed.” Simply in terms of dollars, more money was spent on the 2010 election than any previous by a long shot, with interest groups spending almost $700 million (p. 19). Some might also be tempted to propose a further effect: the net gain for the Republicans of 63 seats in the House of Representatives (enough for a majority) and 6 seats in the Senate (p. 185). But as the authors acknowledge, Republican victory in 2010 was due to a variety of different causes, only one of which was the CITIZENS UNITED ruling. This is evident when one considers the specific interest groups which influenced the contest; INTEREST GROUPS UNLEASHED provides a look at nine such groups.

In 2010 several interest groups that favored Republicans changed their electoral approaches to include super PACs, but several interest groups that favored Democrats did so as well. Unions were one of the groups that the new campaign finance rules opened up new possibilities for, and they took advantage of this by donating around $14.6 million to super PACs (p. 143). Unions actually spent more money in 2010 than they did in any previous midterm election, but were not successful in getting many Democrats elected for other reasons. Peter Francia argues in his chapter that the main strength of unions in elections is their highly effective get out the vote efforts. The problem in recent years for them has been that there are simply fewer union members (especially unions in the private sector) to get out the vote to. Added to this, union rivals in the form of corporations made huge campaign efforts in 2010. Michael Franz in his chapter on corporate interest groups points out the salient fact that in 2010 there were actually fewer independent expenditures by corporate PACs on issue advertising than in earlier years, because that money was instead spent by corporate super PAC’s doing express advertising (p. 120). Another Republican group that one might have expected to pursue the new electioneering strategies whole-hog was the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, but they in fact did not. In his chapter on the Chamber, Robert Boatright claims that it “did not obviously change its strategy in response to CITIZENS UNITED,” but rather contributed more money in the way it [*33] had before, paying for electioneering ads that did not expressly advocate candidates.

Several interest groups on both sides of the political spectrum chose to focus on a lobbying and access approach as opposed to the new electioneering and replacement approaches that were made available by CITIZENS UNITED. As Herrnson, Deering, and Wilcox put it, they “reacted to the opportunity to run electioneering ads with a yawn” (p. 237). The Defense Industry interest groups focused more on “buying time” with sitting Congressmen than on trying to get new Congressmen through electioneering ads; the changes to the campaign finance laws did not affect them very much (p. 95). Another example of a group which focused on lobbying instead of electioneering in 2010 is the Health Care Industry (p. 58). Suzanne Robbins argues in her chapter on Drugs, Doctors and Hospitals that the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America, the American Medical Association, and the American Hospital Association “acted traditionally, in that they did not take advantage of newer legal structures,” and instead focused on lobbying and supporting incumbents. Additionally, these medical interest groups “had something to protect; they had won significant gains in their bargains over the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act” (p. 63).

Some interest groups behaved the way they did in 2010 because of shorter term factors such as the political issues that were being debated at the time. It should not be forgotten that 2010 featured several new conservative interest groups such as the Tea Party that were largely formed in reaction to the passage of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, which had been signed into law by President Obama earlier that same year. An interesting question Jonathan Mummolo takes up in his chapter on the Tea Party is the degree to which it was a grassroots movement. Groups such as the Tea Party Express PAC took it on themselves to endorse certain candidates as “the” Tea Party candidate, even though the Tea Party Express is a group unaffiliated with the local Tea Party groups (p. 198). Conversely there is more agreement among left-wing Netroots groups such as on who their candidates are; they make a list of “progressive heroes” who then receive support throughout the online grassroots community (p. 226).

Another short term factor that played into the 2010 election had to do with the fact that Republicans had been beaten badly the previous two elections, 2008 and 2006. The new conservative interest groups American Crossroads and Crossroads Grassroots Policy Strategies (GPS) were created largely as alternatives to the then disappointing efforts of the Republican National Committee. American Crossroads changed its tax status from a 527 to a super PAC in the wake of SPEECHNOW.ORG V. FEC, allowing it to do expressly advocate candidates (p. 175). A main focus of American Crossroads was to coordinate conservative electoral efforts. John J. Pitney Jr. points out in his chapter that it was illegal for a super PAC such as American Crossroads to communicate with the candidates and party organizations it supported, but it was not illegal for it to communicate with other super PACs or to communicate information in the public domain, which it did (p. 179). American Crossroads communicated election information such as whether an advertisement had been shown in a given district to other conservative groups. The Crossroads organizations are probably the best examples from this book of interest groups that took advantage of the new campaign finance laws to their fullest. Oddly, that advantage was not in terms of dollars, but information and a widened scope of influence (interest group scope of influence is an important topic in the literature going back at least to E.E. Schattsneider’s 1960 book THE SEMISOVEREIGN PEOPLE).

An accurate discussion of campaign finance ought to correctly use the terms laid down in current law (such as “PAC,” “527,” “501c,” etc.). It should be said that the authors of INTEREST GROUPS UNLEASHED all did an excellent job of clearly describing disclosure details, tax status details, and spending limit details –details that are often confusing for beginner students to understand. Paul Herrnson’s chapter at the beginning of the book [*34] discusses the various categories of legal entities which interest groups fall under. This book is well-written enough that the authors of the remaining chapters do not repeat information covered in the initial chapter too much, and if they do repeat they usually include cross references (e.g. “see chapter 1”). The editors even included a redaction of the CITIZENS UNITED ruling as an appendix to the book (with Justice Kennedy’s majority opinion and one of the dissents, by Justice Stevens). These aspects of the book are very helpful. Together these chapters make for an ideal book to assign in a college-level course on interest groups.

It is undoubtedly true that the new regulatory environment has encouraged or at least ensured donors in increasing the amounts they spend on campaigns. In terms of how corrupting that money is on elected officials, Herrnson, Deering, and Wilcox point that one bad effect is that elected officials waste the American people’s time trying to get that money. In a post-CITIZENS UNITED environment, “[p]olicymaking and district work time will shift even more to time spent on fundraising” (p. 241). This is a continuing trend among Congressmen that was noticed by political scientists at least going back David Mayhew’s 1978 book CONGRESS: THE ELECTORAL CONNECTION. Gary Malecha and Daniel Reagan argued in their 2012 book THE PUBLIC CONGRESS that the era of social media has allowed more citizens to connect with their Congressmen, but that Congressmen once again have less time for learning policy or discussing policy with other Congressmen. This is a problem for American democracy because good deliberation in lawmaking requires that Congressmen build up the necessary policy knowledge. For that reason, it is important that future campaign finance reformers understand the ways interest groups have been “unleashed” in our time.


Malecha, Gary and Reagan, Daniel, 2012. THE PUBLIC CONGRESS: CONGRESSIONAL DELIBERATION IN A NEW MEDIA AGE. New York: Routledge.

Mayhew, David, 1978. CONGRESS: THE ELECTOAL CONNECTION. New Haven: Yale University Press.

Schattsneider, Elmer E., 1960. THE SEMISOVEREIGN PEOPLE: A REALIST’S VIEW OF DEMOCRACY IN AMERICA. Fort Worth, TX: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich College Publishers.





© Copyright 2016 by author, Christopher J. Wolfe