Political “identify theft.” That’s how some candidates and election watchdogs describe the explosion of negative ads financed by outside groups in the 2012 Minnesota legislative campaigns.
“The candidates are being defined by an outside entity,” said Gary Goldsmith, executive director of the Campaign Finance and Public Disclosure Board. “This election has been the clearest demonstration of that yet.”
The ads are drawing the board’s scrutiny. With all the outside spending, “It’s a problem because the candidate’s voice is the weakest voice being heard. That’s generally the consensus of the board right now,” Goldsmith said.
Candidates are limited to spending $34,000 for a House race and $68,000 for a Senate seat. But when the final campaign reports come in early next year, many legislative races will hit the low six figures in spending, and a few races could hit the half-million dollar mark. Most of that money will come from groups far removed from the candidate’s control.
Republican Pam Wolf, defeated in her try for a second term as state senator from Anoka, Coon Rapids and Blaine, said that with 34 separate pieces of mail attacking her, voters had no idea who she really was.
“The tone of the pieces and the statements that were made were way over the top,” she said. “One piece said I made it a crime to find a cure for Alzheimer’s and diabetes because I oppose human cloning. But I don’t oppose stem cell research.”
Wolf’s vote against human cloning is the typical mechanism used in negative ads to suggest a more extreme position than a candidate truly holds.
In the Senate District 49 race in Edina and Bloomington, the DFL Party, for example, used a series of procedural votes to claim that Republican Keith Downey voted against women by denying funding for mammograms and repealing equal pay laws.
His opponent was attacked, too. When a voting history is lacking, as in the case of Downey’s successful DFL challenger Melisa Franzen, the attack is less precise but no less definitive. “Melisa Franzen. Endorsed by unions. Radical plans,” reads a flyer prepared and paid for by the Freedom Club.
The complaints come from both sides, but the howls over negative campaign ads are louder this year from Republicans, who were outspent two-to-one by groups aligned with the DFL.
Many Republicans, such as Wolf and Downey, were targeted with dozens of different negative ads. There were “two or three pieces a day” at the end of the campaign, according to Wolf. “Who would have expected the police officers to start a PAC?”
Public Safety Matters, a group that describes itself as an independent, nonpartisan association of law officers, took issue with Wolf’s vote to reduce Local Government Aid (LGA). In a flyer, it accused her of jeopardizing public safety in Blaine and Coon Rapids.
The claim, she says, is an outright lie. “None of my cities had a cut in LGA. No deputies were let go because of funding,” she said.
Wolf and other candidates who say they were targets of false advertising have limited ways of finding relief. The state law that addresses false campaign statements comes under the jurisdiction of the Office of Administrative Hearings, which adjudicates but does not investigate.
That being the case, Wolf says, “ I think there should be some place where voters should be able to look at the resources to find out how the mailer got to this conclusion.”
“It’s an interesting question and an interesting concept,” Goldsmith said when told of the Wolf complaint. “[But] there’s no government agency that would have jurisdiction or even an interest in doing this,” he said.
The 2012 elections have left the campaign finance board with its own flood of spending problems to resolve, specifically disclosure of contributions to independent groups. The board is concerned with groups that avoid Minnesota’s disclosure laws because they exist as “education,” not political, entities.
“They would fall through the cracks of our disclosure laws, so you may not know who the group is and where they get their money from. The board is looking at considering legislative recommendations on that,” said Goldsmith. But, Goldsmith acknowledged, that kind of change would have no effect on the amount and tone of outside spending.
And it won’t help a candidate trying to get back to civilian life. “When we return back to our ‘real’ jobs, it is difficult if our character has been attacked during a campaign,” said Wolf, a teacher. “They said I was horrible for education, horrible for public safety, that I voted against funding for Alzheimer’s. Now I have to go apply for a teaching job.”
Wolf suggests that laws should be tightened to require more factual campaign claims with better sources, “so voters can see what the statements are really based on.”
But, the solution to the outsized advantage of independent spending may lie in expanding the power of the candidate, not in limiting the speech of groups on the outside.
With the prospect of proposals from the campaign finance board and the looming governor’s race in 2014, it’s possible that the Legislature would consider several campaign finance changes, including raising the candidate spending limits — to make the weak candidates’ voices a little stronger.