Candidates are junior partners in campaign ad wars

LANSING – Candidate committees are junior partners in the campaign ad wars being waged over Michigan’s governorship and two seats on the Michigan Supreme Court. In the gubernatorial campaign, Republican Rick Snyder and Democrat Virg Bernero have spent a combined total of $3.1 million for television ads, while the Republican Governors Association and the Michigan Democratic State Central Committee have combined to spend $7.3 million for gubernatorial television ads.

The Democratic Party does not report the finances underlying its television “issue” campaign. The Republican Governors Association does not report anything specific to its Michigan advertising. It files national reports with the Internal Revenue Service on its sprawling multi-state operation.

Supreme Court candidates Alton Thomas Davis, Denise Langford Morris and Robert P. Young, Jr. have spent $1.1 million for television, while the political parties and interest groups previously unseen in Michigan politics have spent $7.1 million for Supreme Court ads. Mary Beth Kelly hasn’t paid for any television advertising of her own.

In the Supreme Court campaign, the Democratic Party, again, reports nothing about the financing of its “issue” advertising. The Michigan Republican Party did disclose $700,000 worth of television independent expenditures in its pre-election report, but it did not associate the report with its Supreme Court advertisements. The early flight of Republican Party ads had a disclaimer that said they were paid for with regulated funds.

“So damn much money, and so little accountability,” said Rich Robinson of the Michigan Campaign Finance Network. “If we don’t know who is financing a candidate’s campaign, how can citizens evaluate whether an officeholder is serving the public interest, or the interests of his secret financial backers? Secrecy is an incubator for corruption.”

“This is particularly troublesome in Supreme Court campaigns,” Robinson added, “where you could have a ‘Caperton’ problem and not even recognize it because the financial patrons of the campaigns are anonymous.”

The U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Caperton v. Massey Coal Company established that large-scale campaign spending by a party to a court case can create sufficient probability of bias that a judge should disqualify himself from a case involving the major campaign supporter.

This year’s Supreme Court campaign follows a decade-long pattern of anonymously funded television advertising. The 2008 campaign featured $1.6 million worth of disclosed candidate-sponsored television advertising and $3.8 million worth of unaccountable ads that sought to define the qualifications of the candidates without directly exhorting a vote.

The Michigan Campaign Finance Network has documented over $20 million worth of anonymously-financed campaign television advertising in Michigan Supreme Court campaigns since 2000, and more than $50 million worth of such advertising in all state campaigns over the past ten years.

Note on the data: Campaign advertising data are collected by the Michigan Campaign Finance Network from the public files of Michigan's brodcasters and cable systems. All figures cited are gross sales. The Michigan Republican Party and the Michigan Democratic State Central Committee are each sponsoring campaign ads in multiple state campaigns. In some cases, they are using the same advertising agency for more than one campaign. This complexity introduces a small level of imprecision to the data presentation.

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