An election cycle conjures the ghost of Curly Howard

Ah, freedom! It’s campaign season and we’re falling into line with the 21st century Roberts/Alito vision of democracy: My billionaires can whip your billionaires.

In Michigan’s U.S. Senate race, the candidates are raising millions of dollars but the messages from their campaign committees are being out-shouted by nonprofit corporations and Super PACs. Our election is being nationalized.

Through June 30th, Republican Terri Lynn Land’s campaign had spent $1.7 million on television advertisements and Democrat Gary Peters’ campaign, $1.2 million. Meanwhile, independent spenders paid $9.6 million for slashing attack ads about the candidates. Over 75 percent of the ads Michiganders have seen about the candidates are outside spenders’ messages.

The groups that are supporting Land by attacking Peters are mostly nonprofit corporations that do not disclose their donors – dark money groups. The two most prolific spenders among them, Americans for Prosperity ($4.3 million) and Freedom Partners Chamber of Commerce ($576,000), are part of the network of political nonprofit corporations associated with Charles and David Koch.

That labyrinthine network raised and spent some $400 million in the 2012 election cycle. Four of the groups – Americans for Prosperity, American Future Fund, 60 Plus Alliance and American Energy Alliance – sponsored one-third of all television ads about Barack Obama that aired in Michigan in 2012. The Nation reports that 300 donors gathered at the invitation of the Koch brothers last month at the St. Regis Monarch Bay Resort in California with the explicit goal of raising $500 million to win a Republican majority in the Senate in 2014. You are not welcome to know who was on that guest list.

The nonprofit corporation Ending Spending, Inc. and its sister Super PAC, Ending Spending Action Fund, have chipped in with $800,000 more in anti-Peters ads. Joe Ricketts, founder of TD Ameritrade, and his son Todd Ricketts are officers of the nonprofit, which does not disclose its donors. Members of the Ricketts family have contributed $950,000 to the SuperPAC, which does disclose its donors, so far this election cycle. Joe Ricketts was a frequent on-stage presence and SuperPAC supporter of Rick Santorum’s 2012 run for the Republican presidential nomination.

Rounding out the stable of Ms. Land’s dark money supporters is the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, a national business association, which has kicked in $520,000 so far for anti-Peters ads.

The leading spender among groups that are supporting Peters by attacking Land is the Senate Majority PAC. The D.C.-based Super PAC, which is controlled by U.S. Senate Democrats, has spent over $2 million for ads bashing Land. Its leading donors so far this election cycle include climate change activist and hedge fund manager Tom Steyer, $5 million; Chicago newspaper publisher Fred Eychaner, $4 million; former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, $2.5 million; and New York mathematician and hedge fund manager James Simons, $2 million. Senate Majority PAC raised and spent $42.1 million in the 2012 election cycle.

The other committees that have sponsored anti-Land TV ads are the national political action committees of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees ($958,000) and the Service Employees International Union ($300,000). Both union PACs disclose their donors.

Michigan’s gubernatorial election campaign has been similarly dominated by independent spending. However, independent spending means something entirely different in state campaigns from what it does in federal ones. In federal campaigns, independent spenders are prohibited from coordinating with candidates’ campaigns. In Michigan state campaigns, an independent spender is not allowed to be under the control of a candidate, but there is no prohibition against coordination. And besides, the Republican Governors Association and the Democratic Governors Association, who had spent a combined $4.4 million on TV ads by June 30th, don’t have to report any of their activity to the State Bureau of Elections because they are not “expressly” telling you who should get your vote. Yes, really.

The public files of state broadcasters and cable systems show that Republican Gov. Rick Snyder spent $1 million for TV ads through June 30th, mostly for a 60-second Super Bowl ad that ran across the state, except in the Marquette media market. Meanwhile, the Republican Governors Association spent $1.5 million for ads attacking Democratic candidate Mark Schauer. Snyder and the RGA had a similar tag-team arrangement for the 2010 campaign. That year the RGA did the heavy lifting for the general election TV campaign by spending $3.5 million from Labor Day until mid-October. Snyder’s candidate committee was the junior partner in the general election ad campaign and ran ads for its final three weeks.

The Democratic Governors Association spent $2.9 million for TV through June 30th this year, while Mark Schauer’s campaign has yet to sponsor television advertising. While many of the DGA’s ads attacked Snyder, others served to introduce Schauer to voters. If the state of Michigan recognized the DGA’s ads as campaign expenditures, which it does not, they would be clear examples of full partnership between an “independent” spender and a candidate.

The Democratic Governors Association and the Republican Governors Association are organized as political committees under section 527 of the federal tax code. They exist to support the election of partisan candidates. Each reports its receipts and expenditures to the Internal Revenue Service. Each has a political action committee in Michigan and reports activities of its PAC to the state. But neither has to report the activity of the parent organization.

In summary, there’s a whole lot we don’t know about the principal funding sources in our headline political campaigns – and what we do know doesn’t look like any conventional notion of democracy. The information black holes are not due to lack of curiosity on our part. The politicians who benefit from big donors’ support don’t want the donors’ fingerprints on the money. That makes it embarrassing, or worse, when they show gratitude with special provisions in the tax code, or other forms of targeted reciprocity.

It all reminds me of the old schtick where Curly Howard would cry, “I can’t see. I can’t see.”

His fellow Stooge, Larry Fine, would ask, “What’s the matter?”

To which Curly would respond, “I’ve got my eyes closed.”

Nyuk, nyuk nyuk! The joke’s on us.

Facts matter. Trust matters. Journalism matters.

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Fri, 07/18/2014 - 5:11pm
As interesting as this information is what does it matter? Why should I care who spends how much money? I wonder if all the spending is simply filling a void in the public's interest. Why does advertising (in this case political advertising) matter? Why or even do people listen to the advertising? What are they listening for? The reality is that until we understand why we believe people listen to political advertising there is only a random chance that any action will be found that will prevent its expansion or encourage a reduction. Anyone, why do you feel there is more and more being spent on poltical advertising?
Sat, 07/19/2014 - 7:04am
I don't think many people really want to listen to political advertising, it is basically shoved down our throat especially if you watch TV. If you don't like it a TV remote is essential to mute the noise. I find political advertising untruthful, manipulative and an insult to my intelligence, that said if anyone finds it informative they are welcome to it.
Sat, 07/19/2014 - 9:16am
The whine here seems to be that political ads (information) are funded by anonymous donors. So what. Missouri Democrat Claire McCaskill said that, "The voters have a right to know who is paying for things...especially when it comes to political advertising." But Rep. McCaskill scratches where it doesn’t itch. Why should voters care who advertises provided that what is said is true? Isn’t it these politicians’ itch? These fellows are irritated because they can’t discover who opposes them and mete out appropriate punishment. It may be that the anonymous donor has a grievance that he wants addressed by electing a better candidate but fears retribution from a powerful and unscrupulous incumbent who will probably be reelected anyway. The donor may also want to hide his political activity from friends, customers or employers. Remember what happened to Mormons and Catholics when a court order forced the publication of the donor list for supporters of Prop 8 (Gay Marriage) in California? The Founding Fathers published the Federalist Papers, Antifederalist, Common Sense and other founding documents under pseudonyms. I note that comments on this blog are anonymous. Anonymity in politics has a long and honorable history in the United States and should not cause ethical politicians to itch. Suppose that Richard Nixon had the power to get at Deep Throat; would DT have dared tell the truth? And suppose that Deep Throat had been IBM which knew what was happening because they had control of information flows? Would it make any difference to Nixon if it were IBM, then among the most powerful of American corporations? IBM knew that Tricky Dick had real power of retribution and would have had to feed its information into the system anonymously. To hold otherwise is ridiculous. The donor/advertisement probably is telling the truth, yet the offended candidate is free to use his power to ruin the truth sayer. Happens all the time. Anonymity opens the political discourse. The current practice is perfect and hopefully politicians citing "voter rights" won't be able to insert more unconstitutional blather like McCain Feingold If ads are libelous, sue the front organization; it's the American way. So we need and and have traditionally had anonymity in American politics. Big powerful donors and private individuals all need to fear their government. We must continue the American way of anonymous political commentary, not return to the unconstitutional McCain-Feingold miasma. The bill of rights must not constrain speech or our lives and property, but rather constrain government. Erwin Haas is not anonymous.
Sun, 07/20/2014 - 8:34am
The lack of transparency does little to further the process of good government. Of course large donors can work to effect change in the State, as a citizen I deserve to know who it is that wants this change. The deeper problem is this: the large anonymous money from outside fundamentally does not care about the State, but only its ideology. This produces two important harms: first, it diminishes the candidate, making him or her into a mouthpiece rather than as some one who has actually learned and loves this State; second when the matter is ideology, anonymity then becomes a cloak for corrupt thinking on the part of the citizen -- we learn but do not know who or what our teacher is. That the proposed solution to all this is a lawsuit barely stands the smell test, although it is good for a laugh when advanced by a well-known libertarian. Citizenship depends on a basic transparency. The appeal for my vote asks for a basic clarity on the part of the sender. And while it is always good to be cautious about non-accountable government, it is also wise to be concerned with non-accountable or cloaked corporations -- this is the well known path to corruption and the abandonment of the common good.
Sun, 07/20/2014 - 7:02pm
"Why should voters care who advertises provided that what is said is true? " Advertising is the spreading information; else we have to listen only to the well established candidate who has the squeeze on the information that he will allow to see the light of day or to a flaccid and ideologically motivated news media (Example; Center for Michigan, Mackinac and the rest.) What possible objection can a voter have to getting otherwise unavailable information about a candidate? Why would the source be of any concern? The fact that it takes money to disseminate information should not alter its impact. I understand the resentment and paranoia that many feel against others who have more money and are in a position to broadcast positions that are contrary to what the established politician wants people to believe; it's called envy, one of the seven deadly sins.
Dann Moesta
Sun, 07/20/2014 - 1:22pm
It's appears to me that for those who don't think anonymous donation matters, they also wouldn't care about specific laws targeting code that would apply only to those donors. Either, You know that never happens or you are being willfully ignorant. Additionally, it's stunning to me that after such a huge net neutrality debate, every individual wouldn't think it's critical to stop uneven access to legislation that favors a few.
Sun, 07/20/2014 - 10:14pm
Dann, It doesn't seem to be how much is said, rather it is about what is said and even what people are listening for. A great deal of money can, has been, spent on campaigns and yet it doesn't seem that assures the spenders desired results. I am more interested in why people are listening? Why do you think people listen? As for 'net neutrality' I haven't heard much about the realities of what has driven the internet, the ever increasing access to it, and its increased speed, so I am not sure how it fits into the campaign discussion.
Nuclear Hank
Mon, 07/21/2014 - 9:12am
Thanks for mentioning Prop 8. Mozilla Exec was fired years after he contributed $1000 to traditional marriage groups. The problem is that the Unions will attack any donors homes and family that go against their beliefs and the current DOJ/Law enforcement will not act against the Unions. The News media is so far left, as in the Occupy movement, that they will gladly join the cry to attack conservative donors.
Sat, 07/19/2014 - 9:33am
*** is my real name. :) Having dealt with various nut cases online including a frivilous lawsuit that was eventually dropped I prefer to remain unknown (and am much more careful in what I say as well.
Bill Fullmer
Sun, 07/20/2014 - 12:34pm
Can political ads be effective? My simple answer is I don't know, but I do know why advertising in general continues. That is because it works from a cost/benefit perspective. I doubt that political ads are any different. So why would political ads be effective? I can think of a few likely reasons and I'm sure others could add to the list. A) Critical thinking in our society continues to diminish at a rapid pace. Political campaign maestro's have known that and capitalize at will. They also know few people have the time or motivation to do the research that would point out the inaccuracies and faulty logics in ads. It's all about creating images. B) It is likely such messages help motivate the party faithful to stay focused on the election and the party. C) News media no longer have staff that can do the research and point out inaccuracies. There are some 'fact check' web sites, but the objectivity of their publications may not be clear. These matters alone give an open field to the campaigns to publish about anything they want, regardless of where the money is coming from.
Tue, 07/22/2014 - 9:32pm
Bill, Could another factor be that people don't have a set of criteria to use when evaluating candidates? Without such criteria then the ads become a means of distinguishing candidates. What criteria would you think people might use?
Sun, 07/20/2014 - 12:40pm
Like it or not all US Senate and House elections have national implications. (State governance isn't too far behind.) When you have a government that taxes and involves itself to the extent and degree as ours it's unrealistic to expect anything else from happening. Remeber that "no taxation without representation" thing? You reap what you sew.
Mon, 07/21/2014 - 9:56am
While I generally favor full disclosure of political advocacy funding, I am sympathetic with concerns about security. There are far too many incidents of leftists adopting tactics of intimidation and occasionally outright violence against people that transmit messages that these leftists oppose. People that provide significant funding for non-Democrats can wind up with a large contingent of SEIU members on their lawn. That sort of political intimidation needs to stop before we can begin to think about solving issues surrounding the transparency of campaign funding.
Charles Richards
Mon, 07/21/2014 - 4:00pm
Mr. Robinson says, " Our election is being nationalized." Really? How would it be otherwise? Federal Senators and Representatives participate in making national policy. Does he mean to say that individuals in other states can't attempt to persuade Michigan voters that their views on public policy will better promote the general welfare than the available alternatives? Or should Michigan's voters content themselves with local, parochial issues like roads, post offices, and programs that are targeted toward their immediate, particular needs? And just what significant information would knowing the identity of contributors add to voters knowledge? Aren't voters capable of evaluating the merits of the message? Of course, such information would enable them to make their decision on the basis of whether or not the sponsor belonged to their tribe, or to the other tribe. But is that how we want to make our public policy decisions? He says, "In summary, there’s a whole lot we don’t know about the principal funding sources in our headline political campaigns – and what we do know doesn’t look like any conventional notion of democracy." Democracy consists in everybody voting. The candidate with fifty percent plus one of the votes wins. That concept does not imply equal influence in determining the outcome. Mr. Robinson is consumed with the influence of big contributors. There is a straightforward way of dealing with that without infringing on the First Amendment. Simply send each voter a voucher of appropriate value that they could send to the candidate of their choice. That should provide a candidate with enough funds to greatly dilute the influence of a big donor. There would be no need to limit political contributions. Of course, that wouldn't be sufficient for Mr. Robinson. His real objective is to diminish the influence of some people. He is pursuing equality. He is like Mayor Bill Deblasio of New York City. He proposed financing expanded preschool with a special tax on wealthy New Yorkers. When Governor Cuomo said the state would provide the necessary funds, Mayor Deblasio replied that he still wanted to impose the tax on the rich. Neither Mr. Deblasio, nor Mr. Robinson are interested in wise public policy. Their concern is diminishing the wealthy.