Changes to campaign finance laws could have big effect in N.H. races
Concord — From the moment Scott Brown declared his intent to challenge U.S. Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, experts predicted this could be New Hampshire’s most expensive election ever.
It’s a familiar refrain across the country, as spending on elections has and will continue to skyrocket in the wake of yet another U.S. Supreme Court ruling. Following the 2010 Citizens United decision that unleashed corporate and union cash into the coffers of third-party political groups, a ruling that came down last month will make it easier for the wealthiest Americans to bankroll elections. As political campaigns hit their stride in New Hampshire, the new rules will set the stage for an election season with more negative advertising on the airwaves, more fliers in your mailbox and knocks on your door and the potential for far more money flowing in from outside the state.
In New Hampshire, advocates for campaign finance reform are taking action at the local level. This town meeting season, 48 communities passed resolutions calling for a reversal of Citizens United. They believe the infusion of “big money” into politics erodes the democratic process.
In the 2012 election, 90 percent of all super PAC money came from just 600 people, and less than 1 percent of Americans contributed at least $200 to a campaign. On the other hand, defenders of Citizens United agree with the U.S. Supreme Court that money equals speech, and therefore government has no business limiting how much people and businesses spend to voice their political opinions.
Despite these differing opinions, one thing in clear: Recent changes to campaign finance laws are altering the political landscape. In Concord last week, former Federal Election Commission chairman Trevor Potter explained how these changes could have profound effects on national and statewide elections.
The Individual Cap
In April, the Supreme Court struck down restrictions on the total amount of money individuals can give to campaigns in a single election cycle in a case called McCutcheon v. Federal Election Commission.
Donors can give up to $2,600 to any one candidate in a federal election cycle, but before this decision could only give $48,600 in total contributions to candidates, meaning they had to pick and choose which candidates to give to. The McCutcheon decision struck down those aggregate limits, meaning donors can give the maximum amount to as many candidates or party committees as they want.
In the race to control the U.S. Senate, Shaheen is considered a vulnerable Democrat this fall, although not as vulnerable as some other Democrats in places such as Arkansas and Louisiana. Before the McCutcheon decision, mega-donors from both parties who considered other races more important might not have donated money to New Hampshire races.
But now, donors from outside the state may throw their money toward New Hampshire, either to Shaheen or her opponents, knowing they don’t face limits on how much they can give.
The Republican National Committee, the Republican Congressional Campaign Committee and the Republican Senatorial Campaign Committee have also formed a joint fundraising group that only requires them to solicit major donors once. In the past, the three would have been competing for checks from the biggest donors. Now, with the limits gone, they can solicit one giant check from a mega-donor and deposit it into the joint account, Potter said.
“They could’ve asked for that before, but all of their major donors would’ve been maxed out,” Potter said.
The Democrats have not yet formed a similar joint committee.
Unaffected in the McCutcheon decision is fundraising by outside groups, which were already allowed to collect unlimited amounts of money from individuals as well as corporations or unions.
The catch with these outside groups, including super PACs, is that they’re supposed to act independently of any candidate and they’re required to disclose their donors. But it’s often difficult to determine what constitutes coordination.
For example, the New Hampshire Republican Party recently alleged Shaheen coordinated with the Senate Majority PAC to create an anti-Brown ad. Adding to the confusion are the numerous loopholes in disclosure laws. Non-profits, for example, don’t have to disclose their donors if candidate advocacy isn’t their primary purpose.
In New Hampshire, outside groups spent $19 million in the 2012 gubernatorial election, and they’ve already spent at least $2 million in this year’s U.S. Senate race.
In a small state like New Hampshire, only so much money can be spent on television and radio advertising before the market becomes saturated. But there are always more ways to spend money, particularly by investing in organizing, by training people to knock on doors and get out the vote, Potter said. Politico recently reported that Americans for Prosperity plans to spend $125 million in 2014 on a ground, data and airwaves operation nationally.
Had Shaheen and Brown signed the “People’s Pledge” to keep outside money ads off the airwaves, outside groups still could have worked on behalf of either candidate by organizing volunteers, sending direct mail or creating web ads.
More spending by outside groups also tends to put a greater number of negative ads on the air. Research shows voters are more likely to remember negative ads, but they don’t like it when those ads come directly from candidates, Potter said. Since outside groups don’t have a reputation to protect, they’re more likely to go for the more effective negative ad.
These negative ads aren’t always meant to sway voters, either, Potter said. In fact, they’re often meant to keep voters home.
“If you go to an Obama voter and you run an ad telling them how bad Obama is, you are not going to turn them into a Romney voter. They’re going to stay home because they’re disillusioned. Their guy isn’t who they thought (he) was,” Potter explained. “The ads are considered successful if they lower the voter enthusiasm and the voter turnout for your opponent.”
Advocates for campaign finance reform, such as the Coalition for Open Democracy here in New Hampshire, argue that outside groups are crowding out the voices of New Hampshire residents who don’t have the financial means to participate in the process the same way.
But Greg Moore, state director of Americans for Prosperity, said that the group has 36,000 members and 1,000 donors from New Hampshire, which discredits the idea that AFP ads run here are coming from people without a stake in the state.
He also said the First Amendment wasn’t meant to equalize how much free speech people have, but rather to keep the government from interfering in anyone’s right to as much political speech as they want.
“There are people whose fundamental perception is that political speech should be regulated, and that is certainly inconsistent with where the Supreme Court is going,” Moore said.