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.