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With New Campaign Finance Rules, You Can't Really Follow The Money


This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Billions of dollars have been spent on campaigns during this midterm election season. My guest, Nicholas Confessore, has been trying to follow the money and see what it's buying. Confessore is a national correspondent for The New York Times who writes about the intersection of money, influence and power.

Nicholas Confessore, welcome to FRESH AIR. So the Center for Responsive Politics reports that this year congressional contests are on track to be the most expensive midterms in history. So who's spending more, the Democrats or the Republicans? Can you tell?

NICHOLAS CONFESSORE: You know, it's impossible to know, and that's part of the problem we have with money in politics in this country today. A huge amount of what we call outside spending, which is super PACs and political nonprofits that can't coordinate with candidates but can spend whatever they want - a huge amount of that money is pouring through groups that don't disclose anything in real time about their donors and disclose only a little bit about what they're spending.

So we know at a minimum, for example, that in this outside spending world, groups have spent at least about $478 million through October 28th of this election cycle but that is a floor 'cause that is only the part of the spending that for a variety of reasons these outside groups are required to disclose. On top of that, you have the candidate spending.

I would say, you know, just based on the advertising buys that the Republicans and their team - their allies will probably outspend the Democrats and their allies by a fair margin in this cycle. It'll be on the order of 10 or 15 percent probably - 20 percent. So both parties will have plenty of money, but I do think that Republicans and their allies will spend somewhat more.

GROSS: Do you ever spend time daydreaming about alternate ways this money could be spent...


GROSS: ... For the improvement of the world?

CONFESSORE: That's right. I would, you know, spend it on food programs, you know, better school lunches. You know, the truth is it's a lot of money, but one thing that has always struck me about money and politics is how little money it really is in the scheme of things. You know, the average marketing budget probably for Procter and Gamble on the course of a calendar year, I suspect, rivals all the spending on campaigns in an election year. I'm making that up, but political spending...

GROSS: Oh, don't worry about it.


GROSS: Don't worry about making that up.

CONFESSORE: Political spending in general is about, you know, $6 billion in a presidential, four billion in a midterm election. That's where we're at now. That's a lot of money, but when you think that the federal government - how much power it has and what it controls and the outcomes it can influence and the amount of simply - of federal spending at stake, the ideological battles at stake - that is actually not a ton of money in my mind. It may be too much money, but I'm always surprised that there isn't more money in politics.

GROSS: So that's interesting. It's not the answer I was expecting from you, but it's an interesting one. So the Koch brothers' political organization started a new super PAC this year, The Freedom Partners Action Fund. The Koch brothers' political organization had already been very active in politics and supporting candidates. So why did they need another group, and what can this group do that the network wasn't able to do before? And we should mention that they support, you know, conservative candidates.

CONFESSORE: That's right. I think what's important to understand about Charles and David Koch and their political operation is that they have very intentionally built almost the entire thing outside of the world of the official campaign law and official campaigns. I've done some reporting on their early start in politics, and it's very clear that Charles and David Koch regard much of the edifice of campaign law since Watergate as unconstitutional and wrong and intrusive. And so they've been very sophisticated in going around that.

What that means is they have built an entire network of political nonprofits - of nonprofit groups. And, you know, a large number of these groups spend almost all their money on politics. They also have a big charitable arm which is separate. But the stuff that we're talking about are these political nonprofits that in theory on their tax returns say that their job - their activity is not politics. They're really involved in issue advocacy. And that allows them to operate outside the constraints that candidates and super PACs and party committees do.

But there is a limit here. They've had to sort of be very careful if they want to be around year after year to do more of what's called issue advertising - issue spending where you say Senator so-and-so is for Obamacare. Tell Senators so-and-so that Obamacare is bad. And that is not considered election activity - political activity. It passes muster as issue activity. But the truth is, as any political consultant will tell you, that kind of advertising is just not always as effective as a hard edged vote against this person ad.

And so what the Kochs did this year - their operation set up a super PAC - a super PAC is a group that says hey, we're all about elections. All we do is try to defeat and elect candidates. And they set that up and they found some other donors in their network who were willing to be disclosed - to be public. And they put that money in there, and that group allows them to have an extra tool in the arsenal - an extra weapon where they can do that express advocacy and say vote for this person or vote against that person.

GROSS: So are there certain candidates and certain states that the Koch brothers are targeting this new money at?

CONFESSORE: Well, everyone is in the same states for the most part. It's really mostly about the Senate this year, but the big money is in states like North Carolina and Colorado and Iowa, Alaska and increasingly in New Hampshire - places where control of the Senate is at stake.

GROSS: So who are some of the major donors to this new super

PAC that is overseen by the Koch-brothers-backed network?

CONFESSORE: Well, some of the donors that we've seen are also big donors to a variety of other outside groups. There's Paul Singer who's a New York hedge fund founder and investor. He's a very wealthy man. He's a big Republican donor, and he's in a lot of super PACs including his own super PAC which is mostly focused on promoting gay marriage and electing Republicans who are pro-gay marriage. So he's in there. A second person...

GROSS: Can I stop you for a second? Somebody who is pro-gay marriage is contributing to - in a major way to the Koch brothers' super PAC?

CONFESSORE: That's correct. I mean, you know, what you have to realize is that the Kochs see themselves as libertarians. When David Koch ran for vice president on the Libertarian party ticket in 1980, which is something not everyone knows he did, that ticket was pro-gay marriage in 1980. It was very ahead of its time.

Now, the Koch network, as we like to call it 'cause it's a simple shorthand, does send money to some groups that are against gay marriage. And they obviously make common cause with Republicans and conservative officials who are anti-gay marriage. But I think David Koch, I believe, is on record supporting gay marriage - Charles Koch, I'm not sure. But they're fundamentally about the free market, personal liberty, economic liberty. Those are the causes that matter the most to them.

GROSS: OK, so who else is contributing?

CONFESSORE: Robert Mercer who is a partner and a cofounder of one of the big hedge funds in the country. There is a gentleman who you haven't heard of - he has one of the biggest poultry companies in the country in Arkansas - I think the fifth biggest poultry producer in the country. There is a woman I believe from Michigan who is a billionaire and has a family fortune that comes from roofing. To read these filings is to be confronted with the immense wealth in this country and the variety of people who you've never heard of who are incredibly wealthy and incredibly active in politics.

GROSS: So just one other thing about the new Freedom Partners Action Fund, the super PAC that's connected to the Koch brothers political organization. You write that they're trying to steer clear of the battle within the Republican Party between the more moderate and the more far right wings. So what are they funding? What is their approach?

CONFESSORE: You know, they fund a range of things. You know, a big part of it is Americans for Prosperity - that's their flagship organization, and they run a lot of political ads. But they also spend even more money, I think, on grassroots organizing - on building staff and volunteers and grassroots networks in states like Florida and New Hampshire and Iowa. And this arises out of a belief that labor unions provide the Democratic Party with this huge advantage of manpower and grassroots activity in elections and that Republicans and free-market people and conservatives don't have anything quite like it. And so Americans for Prosperity is designed in part to try to build something like what the unions do as far as a year-round network of politically engaged people put on the right instead of on the left.

Then aside from that, you have a variety of groups that are all funded out of the same, you know, central funding source which is the main Freedom Partners organization. And those donors collectively fund of veterans group, a seniors group, and Hispanic outreach group, a youth group called Generation Opportunity. And what you basically see is an effort to create some market segments for the free market message. And they use each of these groups to do some grassroots activity and some advertising, all under the umbrella of the particular niche they're trying to appeal to. In a lot of ways it's very parallel to what the official Republican Party is doing and has done. You know, the Republicans have an Hispanic outreach initiative. They have a youth outreach initiative. So what you're seeing is - at every level, really, you see the Kochs building basically what amounts to a parallel political party - a private political party that they more or less control and that their donors and they fund.

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Nicholas Confessore. He is a national correspondent for The New York Times who writes about the intersection of influence, money and power. We're talking about how money is affecting the campaigns this year. Let's take a short break, then we'll talk some more. This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, my guest is Nicholas Confessore. He's a national correspondent for The New York Times who focuses on influence, money and power. And we're talking specifically about campaign finance now. We've been talking about the Koch brothers' super PAC. What's the closest equivalent on the Democratic side?

CONFESSORE: Well, you know, there's a network of liberal donors called the Democracy Alliance. And it's not quite as big as the Koch network, but it's basically similar. It's basically a club of wealthy people, a big club of liberal donors. And they try to collectively provide financing for liberal super PACs, grassroots organizations, think tanks, issue organizations. Now, as far as pure politics, again, there isn't a precise analogy because the Democracy Alliance doesn't have any of its own organizations. It's simply a hub, like a club of donors, whereas the Koch network, under Freedom Partners, sort of is its own - it's its own funding organization. And it also sort of runs, and to some extent controls, a lot of the groups that it funds. On the Democratic political side, obviously, you have groups like the Senate Majority PAC, which is probably the biggest spending super PAC on the Democratic side. You have a lot of spending in this cycle. And this is really getting some notice, but by environmental groups, which individually and collectively are spending tens of millions of dollars on this cycle. A lot of them have been around for a long time - the Sierra Club, the League of Conservation Voters. And what you've seen is that those groups, in addition to the environmental advocacy they do year-round, have stepped up their pure political activity. We're not sure where the money comes from. It appears to come from a few large donors as well as their members. And so they do a lot of issue advertising. But really, in the Senate battle, the Senate Majority PAC, which is founded by former aides to Harry Reid, the Democratic leader in the Senate, is the main vehicle for outside spending on the left this year.

GROSS: The major individual donors to the Senate Majority PAC include Tom Steyer. How did he make his money, and what are his causes?

CONFESSORE: Tom Steyer is another hedge fund guy. You'll see a pattern here. There's a lot of hedge fund donors, people who are current or retired hedge fund people. Tom Steyer ran one of the biggest hedge funds in the country out of San Francisco. And a couple of years ago, he decided that climate change was by far the most important and pressing political issue of our time and that not enough was being done by politicians to combat climate change, that policies that could help avert climate change were being subverted or blocked. And he decided he was going to dedicate his retirement, basically, to spending some of the money that he's made to stop this and change the situation. He's been against the Keystone Pipeline. And he's been active in ballot initiatives at the state level in places like California and Washington. And of course, he has spent tens of millions of dollars of his own money in races for governor in recent years and in a bunch of Senate races. So he's not only the biggest or among the biggest donors to the Senate Democratic super PAC, but he's also the main donor to his own super PAC, which is focused on climate issues.

GROSS: Is he particularly invested in certain races?

CONFESSORE: I would say so. I think that he's very invested in the Florida governor's race. You know, this is a race where you have two candidates, Rick Scott and Charlie Crist, Republican and Democrat, who present a very clear choice on climate change and policy. When Charlie Crist was last governor, he enacted policies that were meant to help get Florida prepared for climate change. Obviously it's a low-lying state. It stands to be severely impacted by rising sea levels. And Rick Scott came in as governor and undid a lot of that and has been very hostile to policies that would avert climate change or even acknowledge it. And so you've seen Tom Steyer's group spend a ton of money this year to try to get Charlie Crist elected. And indeed, you know, Florida is a state where, in state politics and state campaigns, outside groups are allowed to coordinate with candidates. That's not true at the federal level. It's true in some states, including Florida. And so Tom Steyer and his team have worked very closely with Charlie Crist to spend money in ways that will help elect him. And they see that as a marquee race - a real - a race where if they can win - you know, kind of win it, they can elect Charlie Crist. It'll send a message to other politicians who are - perhaps are hostile to policies that would avert climate change.

GROSS: Who are some of the other major Democratic donors?

CONFESSORE: Well, there's Michael Bloomberg, the former mayor of New York City. He's given a lot of money to Senate Majority PAC. He's given a huge amount of money to gun control, gun safety groups. He's kind of everywhere. He's even given some money to help Republicans in a couple of races. And then there's a guy named Fred Eychaner, who's not a household name. He's a media mogul in Chicago. And he's been a huge donor, fundraiser for Democrats for years. And he is a big supporter of Hillary Clinton. He was a big supporter of President Obama. And he's poured a lot of money into this group. Another guy named James Simons, he's a hedge fund guy as well. He's been a huge supporter of Senate Democrats. Interestingly, I mentioned earlier a guy named Robert Mercer, who is a big donor to Republicans super PACs, including that Freedom Partners PAC. Well, Robert Mercer and James Simons are partners at the same hedge fund, which just shows you there's a lot of money in finance, and people can work together, even when they have very different political ideas.

GROSS: You know, you wrote in one of your articles that Senate candidates are relying not just on rich donors, but on an incredibly small number of incredibly rich donors. Are you seeing that more than ever now?

CONFESSORE: You know, it's a really striking trend, Terry. The concentration of wealth in this country is mirrored in the concentration of political money. Let's start from the bottom. If you count everybody who contributes anything to any campaign in the country, you are still talking about a tiny fraction, maybe a few percent, of all people in the country. And when you get up to these super PACs that can raise unlimited money, they are extraordinarily dependent on a handful of people. I think there are fewer than a hundred donors who provide over half the money for all of these groups in the country. And a lot of these groups are viewed by candidates and parties as now pivotal to their chances of winning races, of holding or losing the Senate majority, of holding or losing the House in future cycles. And think of the influence and the pressure that can create if one of these people decides that they want something, that they want help on an issue, that they want something blocked, which is even easier in Congress. We heard today that a House committee in Congress is thinking of holding hearings on an Internet gambling bill. Well, that's a big priority of Sheldon Adelson, who owns a huge casino, the Sands Corporation. He's very big on this issue. He's put a lot of money into helping House Republicans, even though they have almost no danger of losing their majority this year. And it just goes to show you, like, when you are that big a player in a system that allows both a concentration of wealth and a concentration of political influence, you know, a few people can have a huge amount of power.

GROSS: Nicholas Confessore will be back in the second half of the show. He's a national correspondent for The New York Times and covers the intersection of money, influence and power. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross back with Nicholas Confessore, a national correspondent for The New York Times who covers the intersection of money, influence and power. He's been reporting on campaign finance issues. Next week's midterm election is the most expensive midterm election in American history.

Are there differences between how Democrats and Republicans are spending their money during this election cycle?

CONFESSORE: You know, for the most part I think their differences, they are not, you know, enormous differences. Everyone spending money on field, on TV, on digital, on data. But I do think that the Democrats in the Senate made a huge bet early in the cycle that they were going to spend a lot of money, at least $60 million on organizing, on grassroots and they were going to start early. They were going to try to build that infrastructure out in the early part of the election cycle and keep it going all cycle. And the reason is, that the electorate in a midterm is much different than the electorate in a presidential year and it favors Republicans. It is older. It is whiter. Democrats tend to get more votes from people who vote less consistently, who move around a lot, who are harder for campaigns to find. And so what Democrats did was say, you know what? We are not going to win these Senate races if the traditional pattern holds. We have to change the pattern. We have to change what the electorate looks like in a midterm election, otherwise we are going to lose. So it's not to say that Republicans haven't spent a lot on grassroots; they have. But I think one big difference was this early bet by the Democratic Party and their Senate candidates and their Senate committee to try to change the very texture of the electorate this year.

GROSS: There's been more secret funding recently because of two recent Supreme Court decisions, Citizens United and this year's decision of McCutcheon versus the Federal Election Commission. And I'd like you to explain what the McCutcheon ruling effectively did.

CONFESSORE: In the federal election system, for candidates and parties, there are limits on what any person can give to a candidate or party. So in 2012, it was for a given candidate throughout the course of a cycle, you give $5,000. For a party, any individual person could give $30,800. But on top of that there was something called an aggregate limit and that limit I believe was around $100,000.

Now you've probably asked why was there this limit that seemed kind of strange? And the reason was there was a fear when these limits were first imposed after Watergate, that without them, you would essentially have an end-run around that first set of limits. So if you could write $5,000 checks to 10 candidates, and you would tell them - you'd tell the chiefs of staff or the fundraisers, look, I actually want you to turn around and give his money all to this one candidate, that would be a way to get around that $5,000 limit. The Supreme Court said, you know what? This is ridiculous. We think that that theory of that evasion of how that's going to happen is bunk. It's not going to happen, they said. So we're going to lift that limit, and now you can give as many of those contributions as you want to as many candidates as you can find. So now in theory you could give that $5,000 to every member of Congress, to every senator, every House member, every candidate for president, every state party. So you no longer have that aggregate cap on top of your contributions that forces you to pick the handful of candidates that you want to back.

GROSS: So what does that functionally mean for the role money is playing in political campaigns this year? Because this is the first election year after the McCutcheon ruling.

CONFESSORE: It's a great question. I mean, you have to ask yourself, who is in a position to actually give more than $100,000 a year in contributions at all, in the first place, right? Your average Joe Schmoe is not going to be able to take advantage of this at all. It's the biggest donors. It's 500 or so donors who we saw, according to federal election data, had hit that aggregate limit in the past. They had maxed out, as we call it in politics. Those are the people who might say, you know what? If I could, I would give more. So that's who can give more, and the question then is, who can get more?

Well, who tends to have access to those superrich donors tends to be party leaders, senior lawmakers, presidential candidates. This is 2014. We're not in a presidential cycle, so what we're seeing now is this new evolution. You see a bit of a bump in fundraising by party committees, so the RNC, the Democratic National Committee, the House and Senate campaign committees of each party. But you also have these new - and here's some more jargon - these super-joint-fundraising committees which are a new beast on the landscape. And these committees, basically a couple of candidates will get together and throw an event and say to the big donor, hey, can you write one big check to cover all of us and put it into this committee and then we'll parcel it out amongst us? So we've seen some examples of that. Sometimes those super-joint-fundraising committees are organized by party leaders on behalf of the candidates. Sometimes the candidates are doing it. So what it basically does is, and here's the bottom line, is the biggest donors can give more money, and the people who have access to the biggest donors can get more money.

GROSS: So it's really consolidating the power of the wealthiest people in the election process.

CONFESSORE: It is, and that really has been the trend line of the Supreme Court's kind of lawmaking for some years now. They've issued a lot of decisions that essentially make it easier and easier for wealthy people to deploy the full weight of their money in politics.

GROSS: There are existing rules that are supposed to regulate disclosure of money and limits on campaign spending. But you say those rules that do exist aren't really being enforced because the Federal Election Commission, which is tasked with overseeing them, is deadlocked and isn't really doing much of anything.

CONFESSORE: What you see in recent years in the FEC, Terry, is just - is escalating deadlocks over rulemaking, which is to say here are the new rules, over what are called advisory opinions, which is when a candidate or committee goes to them and says, can I do this? Is this OK? And then finally the over-enforcement of existing rules. And it has really paralyzed the commission, but I don't think it's a paralysis with equal effect. If you are a regulator, if you are an enforcement agency, not doing something is a win for the deregulatory wing of that enforcement body, and so it goes on the FEC.

Now, I think both sides in the FEC bear some portion of the blame for deadlock in some cases. For example, only recently in the last couple of weeks did the FEC finally bring federal election rules into line with Citizens United, which was issued four years ago. And partly it was a debate - the Democrats on the commission didn't want to update the rules unless the Republicans on the commission agreed to some tighter disclosure requirements which are very important, and the Republicans wouldn't agree.

But you also have issues - you know, there are always evolving kind of legal issues in any field, especially politics. And what we've seen is an inability of the FEC to come to grips or come to terms or agreement on how to address some of these new things. So, for example, this is one easy-to-understand example. We talked about candidates and outside groups, and we've said that outside groups, the reason they're allowed to raise unlimited money and spend unlimited money is because they are independent of the candidates. Now, it's very helpful to the candidates if they can, you know, kind of butt up against the limits of that coordination rule, if they can do everything they can to be in sync with the groups without breaking the law. So one thing we've seen is a candidate - let's say Mitch McConnell - who will film a bunch of campaign ads. And while he's filming his own campaign ads, his team will take a bunch of B-roll footage as it's called, B-roll. This is, for example, like a panning shot of Mitch McConnell at his desk smiling without saying anything. Right, this is the kind of footage that appears in the background of an ad while somebody's doing a voiceover saying how great Mitch McConnell is. So what next? Well, what we're saying is that candidates will now put that B-roll footage on YouTube, make it public, and they'll say if you want to use this B-roll, person out there in the world, feel free. Also what happens? Well, then the super-PAC that wants to elect Mitch McConnell borrows that B-roll and puts it in their campaign ads. And now the outside, uncoordinated, independent campaign advertising looks a lot like Mitch McConnell's advertising, which is the point. So then the question for the FEC becomes, is this coordination? Is that allowed? Are we going to allow that? And what we've seen is twice, when this has come up, the FEC is deadlocked. The Democrats have said one thing. The Republicans have said something else, and they have issued no rule.

But think about the impact of that. Everyone who's a campaign lawyer is watching the FEC. When they see the FEC deadlock on an issue like that, that's tantamount to a decision because they know that as long as there are three Republican FEC commissioners, which is what the statute requires, the three are never going to vote to penalize any campaign for doing that thing, even if they can't agree to formerly, you know, make it allowable. And so what you have is rule-making in absentia or inverse rulemaking, however you want to call it. They are making rules by not doing anything. They are creating a parallel world of deliberate gray area, where campaigns know that if they do this or that, they are pretty likely to not be penalized for it. So it is effectively legal.

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Nicholas Confessore. He's a national correspondent for The New York Times, and he covers the intersection of influence, money and power. Let's take a short break, and then we'll talk some more. This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR and if you're just joining us, my guest is Nicholas Confessore. He's a national correspondent for the New York Times who writes about the intersection of influence, money and power and we're talking about how that's playing out in terms of campaign finance.

Let's just look ahead a little bit to the presidential race - and I don't know how much there is to say about this yet, but one of the things I've been wondering is, you know, Hillary Clinton has been unwilling to say whether she plans on running or not, though a lot of people assume that she is, but she hasn't officially said. So what is that doing in terms of possibly stalling Democratic donors from committing to anything?

CONFESSORE: Well, Terry, I would say she is running. I mean, let's be frank. This looks in every way like somebody who's getting ready to run. I think a lot of people would be very surprised if she doesn't. But having said that, you know, it does have some effects. Obviously it freezes the field. All the other potential contenders either have to, you know, kind of stay in the unofficial phase and sort of have these awkward conversations with donors saying, well, if she doesn't run, you know, think of me as your number two. You have a couple of really outside the box candidates who talk about running like Brian Schweitzer, the former senator from Montana. You really only have, you know, one person who is openly running, Martin O'Malley of Maryland and he is a Hillary person, he is a supporter of hers. And so we've been able to watch and there's this great story in The New York Times this week by Jason Horowitz about Martin O'Malley and sort of the delicate dance you have to do when you're trying to get, you know, revved up for a presidential campaign, but everybody understands that if Hillary Clinton gets in you're probably not going to run. It's kind of awkward. It's difficult.

But on the other hand, there are some advantages for the party as a whole. The entire party is getting ready for her to run and they're getting ready now, years in advance and so donors are getting ready. They're - you know, you see people organizing to get ready to dump tons of money into her campaign or pledge money the second she declares, perhaps next year. You have super packs that have organized and raised millions of dollars to go around the country having grassroots events, building lists of voters and their emails and their phone numbers, you know, essentially people who support Hillary Clinton have taken it upon themselves to start her campaign for her, just in case she runs. And, you know, I don't think that in itself is going to be, like, a decisive thing but it certainly gives her a leg up. On the Republican side, you're going to have a long primary with a bunch of really top-tier candidates - you know, legitimate contenders - and they're all going to raise some money and they're going to duke it out for months. And there's a really good chance that we'll have on the Democratic side somebody who has a lot of the financial and organizational images of being an incumbent, even though they aren't an incumbent - Hillary Clinton - against a party that is going to have a primary and it's going to take a while to play out and it's going to suck up a lot of money and time and goodwill.

GROSS: Well, let's look at the Republican side. It looks like Jeb Bush is seriously considering running. Does he already have a fundraising network in place because of his years as governor of Florida and because of the whole Bush family?

CONFESSORE: Absolutely. If Jeb Bush gets into the race, he is going to raise a phenomenal amount of money. He can draw on several of the biggest networks of donors in Republican politics. He's got an edge in Florida, he's got an edge in Texas and he's got an edge with the ranks of former bundlers and fundraisers who raised money for his brother and for his father. That's a huge network, there isn't anything quite like it. It was largely inherited by Mitt Romney in 2012, but it is still fantastically powerful and remember - a large chunk, if not most of the money in politics comes from Florida, Texas, California, New York. So if you've been a governor of one of those states and your brother has been a governor of the other, that's going to be very helpful to you.

GROSS: And what about Rand Paul? What are his fundraising prospects?

CONFESSORE: You know, I think Rand Paul, you know, again has a real upside for grassroots fundraising under the right circumstances. But I do think while there is a bunch of big donors who share his politics and think he's interesting and presents kind of a fresh face for a party that seems to need one at the presidential level, you know, he is not a traditional Republican candidate, especially on foreign policy and a lot of Republican donors care a lot about foreign policy and he has been a bit iconoclastic on foreign policy. He's deviated a bit from the accepted politics on Israel for a Republican and in general in the Middle East. And that, you know, there are donors who are going to look at that and say, I'm very skeptical of this guy. I'm not sure I'm going to give him any money. So I think - frankly, I think if he wants to rely on that traditional big-money fundraising network, he has a long road to hoe to kind of win them over.

GROSS: Now that there's more undisclosed money than ever in campaign finance, how has that complicated your job in trying to follow the money and figure out who's donating and how are they using their power and influence?

CONFESSORE: It's made it very complicated. You could even argue that we can't really follow the money at all anymore. Over half of the advertising in this midterm election has come from groups that do not disclose much or anything about their sources of money and as independent spending in general consumes a bigger and bigger piece of the pie in politics, that's going to become a bigger and bigger problem. It's simply very hard to evaluate who is behind a lot of the political advertising on the airwaves. With candidates, with parties, we can see a lot more and candidates and parties still account for most of the money sloshing around, most of the spending, most of the fundraising. But you know, as outside spending becomes a bigger and bigger part of politics and as more and more outside spending comes from groups that are technically kind of outside the system - off the books - it's very, very hard. There could be a lot going on, there could be a lot of influence peddling going on that we will just never see, that is impossible to see because we can't see the money changing hands.

GROSS: Nicholas Confessore is a national correspondent for The New York Times.

Coming up, Maureen Corrigan reviews a new book that tells the stories of the 33 Chilean miners who were trapped underground for 69 days in 2010. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.