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Election cash: How Super-PACs and ‘dark money’ are dominating state races

Days before the election, spending on the Michigan gubernatorial and U.S. Senate races is on pace to hit nearly $100 million. That's on par with some other big-spending years.

What's new this campaign: Who's footing the bill.

These statewide races are setting new benchmarks for the impact of outside and hidden sources of money, according to Rich Robinson, executive director of the nonpartisan Michigan Campaign Finance Network, which analyzes the impact of money on state politics. He ties that to a 2010 U.S. Supreme Court decision known as Citizens United which resulted in, among other things, striking down limits on spending by corporations and labor groups on political campaigns, while also helping to increase the influence of “dark money” organizations that do not have to release the names of donors.

“A lot of these (contributors) were dipping their toes into the water before,” Robinson said in an interview. “Now they are splashing around like there's a pool party. They can swamp the gubernatorial race. They can swamp any race they want.”

Robinson expects spending in the U.S. Senate race between former GOP Secretary of State Terri Lynn Land and U.S. Rep. Gary Peters to reach $55 million. When all the cash is counted, he expects $30 million of that to be outside spending.

“That's by far the most in a Michigan Senate race,” he said.

Robinson projects outside spending in the gubernatorial race between GOP incumbent Gov. Rick Snyder and former Democratic U.S. Rep. Mark Schauer will reach $20 million – half the $40 million he calculates will be spent. That would set a new mark as well.

The cash machine of Michigan’s state political action committees is hitting new highs as well. According to Robinson, as of Oct. 20, the top 150 Michigan PACs raised $57.6 million since January 1, 2013 for candidates in both major parties. That’s up 66 percent compared with the amount raised by the top 150 PACs in the same period for 2011-2012. Robinson attributes that to a rise in the number of so-called Super-PACS, which can collect unlimited funds from corporations, unions and individuals and make independent political expenditures.

More outside donors, more attacks

Anyone with a TV can see the result ‒ a deluge of ads aiming to shape high-profile races any way possible. Snyder has been under attack for raising taxes on pensions and for allegedly cutting funds for schools. Schauer has been hit for raising taxes, for residing in the state Legislature during Michigan’s economic plunge, and for backing Obamacare.

Peters stands accused of outsourcing a contract to China while lottery commissioner and (admittedly, in fairness) hiring a felon linked to disgraced former Detroit Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick. Land has taken shots for ties to a family business that evicted trailer park residents and for alleged ties to billionaire industrialists Charles and David Koch and a polluting petcoke operation in Detroit.

But John Truscott of Lansing consulting firm Truscott Rossman considers all that pretty tame stuff.

“I’ve seen much worse over the years. I expected much worse,” said Truscott, former press secretary to GOP. Gov. John Engler.

Truscott said he believes early attacks against Land tying her to the Koch brothers “probably moved the needle” against her campaign.

“There was no response to that. I think to an extent it has stuck.”

“A lot of these (PACS and ‘dark money’ groups) were dipping their toes into the water before. Now they are splashing around like there's a pool party. They can swamp the gubernatorial race. They can swamp any race they want.” ‒ Rich Robinson, Michigan Campaign Finance Network

He also believes the Land camp should have hit Peters harder for hiring a former aide to Kilpatrick (Peters defended the hire as giving a talented person a second chance after the aide had served time for a bribery conviction).

In the governor’s race, Truscott said that attacks on Snyder for raising the pension tax on some seniors may have “a little bit of an impact.”

Bill Ballenger of Inside Michigan Politics, a Lansing political newsletter, says outside money is here to stay unless the Citizens United ruling is somehow reversed.

“It looks that way. The trend is toward far greater spending from Super-PACs and groups that have no physical presence in Michigan or connection to the campaigns.”

A big chunk of spending in the Peters-Land Senate race is “dark” money, its sources hidden by campaign finance provisions that allow donors to contribute to nonprofit “social welfare” organizations without disclosure.

According to records Robinson compiled from public files of broadcasters, Land and her supporters had spent $18.2 million on TV spending by the end of September. Of that, $7.6 million came from hidden sources. Americans for Prosperity – founded by the Koch brothers – led the way with $5.2 million.

Peters and his supporters spent about $14 million on TV spending. About $1 million came from hidden sources, $418,000 from the League of Conservation Voters and $593,000 from A Stronger Financial Michigan, a credit union support organization.

These totals come amid reports that some outside groups are bailing on the Land campaign, which has trailed Peters by double digits in several recent polls. The National Republican Senatorial Committee pulled the plug on nearly $1 million in Land ads for the weeks of Oct. 21 and Oct. 28, according to reports.

GOP dominates ‘dark money’ spending

The Center for Responsive Politics reported about $100 million in national dark money spending as of early October. About $80 million of that amount was by conservative groups. It was at $73 million at the same point in 2012. The total is expected to reach $200 million this year.

According to the Center, outside spending in the Land-Peters race approached $27 million as of Tuesday. In addition to funding from AFP, Land also got $3.4 million from the conservative Ending Spending Action Fund, founded by Joe Ricketts, former chairman of TD Ameritrade. Peters' top outside backers include the Senate Majority PAC, which spent, $3.2 million, NextGen Climate Action Committee, $2.6 million, and the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, $2.2 million.

The respective Land and Peters campaigns raised a total of $20 million as of Sept. 30. Land raised $10.9 million and spent $8.9 million. Peters raised $9.1 million and spent $6.9 million.

But to keep things in perspective, spending in Michigan's Senate race looks almost spartan next to North Carolina. Outside spending there topped $66 million and some project that race will end up with a price tag of $100 million. Michigan ranked seventh in outside spending in Senate races.

Michigan's gubernatorial race is awash in cash from the respective party governors associations. As of Sept. 30, the Democratic Governors Association had spent $7.6 million on behalf of Schauer and the Republican Governors Association $6.3 million on behalf of Snyder.

According to the Center for Public Integrity, the top five donors to the DGA are labor unions. David Koch and and fellow billionaire Sheldon Adelson each gave $2.5 million to the RGA.

The Snyder campaign raised about $12.6 million as of Oct. 19 and spent just over $12 million, according to state campaign finance records. According to campaign filings earlier this year, Snyder received $85,600 from members of the DeVos family in West Michigan, more than $100,000 from employees of Blue Cross/Blue Shield and more than $80,000 from employees of CMS Energy.

Snyder also benefited from $2.3 million in ads launched on his behalf earlier this month by the Independence USA, the centrist Super-PAC funded by billionaire and former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg. Bloomberg also funded ads for Peters.

Schauer raised nearly $9.2 million and spent about $7.6 million, according to the latest available state campaign finance records. His donations include more than $70,000 from Michigan Education Association, the state’s largest teachers union, $68,000 from the Michigan Laborers' Political League and more than $67,000 from employees of the University of Michigan.

Robinson noted that the 2006 Michigan gubernatorial race that pitted Democratic Gov. Jennifer Granholm against Republican businessman Dick DeVos – who put $35 million of his own money into the race - easily topped spending this year. Spending in that race reached nearly $79 million. But Robinson expects outside spending this year to eclipse the $18 million in outside money that year.

Campaign funds in other statewide races:

Michigan Attorney General:

Incumbent GOP Attorney General Bill Schuette has raised five times more money as Democratic rival, Michigan State University law professor Mark Totten. Schuette's campaign had raised $3.7 million and spent $2.7 million compared with about $679,000 raised by Totten. Totten spent about $567,000.

Michigan Supreme Court:

The three Republican-backed candidates – incumbent justices Brian Zahra and David Viviano and Kent County Circuit Judge James Robert Redford – raised nearly $2.2 million and spent $1.4 million. Zahra raised about $915,000 and spent just over $600,000; Viviano raised just over $860,000 and spent about $560,000; and Redford raised nearly $400,000 and spent about $240,000.

Suburban Detroit lawyer Richard Bernstein is the big spender among three Democratic-backed candidates. He raised nearly $2.1 million, of which $1.8 million was his own money. He spent nearly $1.2 million. Wayne County Circuit Judge Deborah Thomas had raised just over $47,000 and spent about $32,000. Michigan Court of Appeals Chief Judge William B. Murphy had raised just over $356,000 and spent about $122,000. Libertarian candidate Kerry Morgan and Natural Law Party candidate Doug Dern each filed waivers, meaning they raised less than $1,000.

Viviano, Thomas and Morgan are running for a partial term to fill the seat now held by Viviano. The others are competing for two seats, with the top two vote-getters elected.

Robinson noted that the Michigan Republican Party funded a $600,000 TV campaign for the Republican-backed trio in early October. But Robinson said donors behind the expenditures will probably never be disclosed because state campaign law doesn't require disclosure of ads if they don't explicitly say vote for or against a candidate. He called it a “clear illustration of the way dark money erodes the presumption of impartial justice” in the judicial system.

Money in four key state Senate races:

7th district: First-term Republican and tea party stalwart Patrick Colbeck is facing term-limited Democratic state Rep. Dian Slavens in this western Wayne County district. Colbeck raised nearly $400,000 and spent about $205,000, while Slavens raised just over $300,000 and spent nearly $220,000.

17th district: State Rep. Dale Zorn is facing former Democratic state Rep. Doug Spade in this district that includes Lenawee and Monroe County. Zorn raised about $413,000 and spent just under $160,000, while Spade raised just over $215,000 and spent about $130,000.

20th district: GOP state Rep. Margaret O'Brien of Portage is competing with Democratic state Rep. Sean McCann of Kalamazoo and Libertarian former state Rep. Lorence Wenke in this Kalamazoo County-based district. O'Brien raised nearly about $835,000 and spent nearly $780,000; McCann raised about $630,000 and spent just over $475,000; Wenke raised just over $100,000 and spent about $85,000.

32nd district. Democratic state Rep. Stacy Erwin Oakes, D-Saginaw, faces GOP former state Rep. Ken Horn in this Saginaw County-based district that includes part of Genesee County. Oakes raised just over $470,000 and spent nearly $340,000 while Horn raised about $350,000 and spent just under $190,000.

Top five state House campaign war chests and spending:

91st district in Muskegon County: Former GOP. state Rep. Holly Hughes raised $246,807, spent $179,494; Democratic incumbent state Rep. Collene Lamonte, raised $309,323, spent $183,686. Total raised $556,130.

76th district in Kent County: Incumbent Democratic state Rep. Winnie Brinks raised $356,498, spent $166,779. Republican Donijo DeJonge, a Grand Valley State University professor, raised $179,862, spent $86,088; Total raised: $536,360;

71st district in Eaton County: Incumbent Democratic state Rep. Theresa Abed raised $296,931, spent $119,515. Republican Tom Barrett, a member of the Michigan Army National Guard, raised $184,456, spent $109,308; Total raised: $481,387.

99th district, includes Isabella and part of Midland County: Incumbent Republican state Rep. Kevin Cotter raised $246,994, spent $112,212. Democrat Bryan Mielke, a business owner, raised $178,670, spent $61,549. Total raised: $425,664;

101st district, includes Leelanau, Benzie, Manistee and Mason counties: Republican incumbent state Rep. Ray Franz raised $167,438, spent $59,377. Democrat Tom Stobie, a former teacher, raised $229,541, spent $106,190. Total raised: $396,979.

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