Independent spenders dominated 2010 Michigan campaigns

Disclosure of who paid is ‘hit and miss’ - mostly ‘miss’

LANSING – Independent spenders overshadowed candidates’ committees in financing Michigan’s most prominent 2010 election campaigns. Details are contained in the 2010 Citizen’s Guide to Michigan Campaign Finance, released today by the Michigan Campaign Finance Network.

In campaigns for statewide executive and judicial offices, the majority of independent spending took the form of candidate-focused “issue” advertising, which sought to define the suitability of one candidate, or another, to hold office, while carefully avoiding an explicit exhortation telling the viewer how to vote.

Such advertisements are not considered to be campaign expenditures by the Michigan Department of State, so the sponsors of the ads do not report them through the State’s campaign finance reporting system, nor do they disclose whose money paid for the ads.

The Michigan Campaign Finance Network collects spending records of the unreported advertisements from the public files of the state’s television broadcasters and cable systems.

Three 2010 election winners of television-dominated statewide campaigns did not buy a broadcast ad of their own. The three were Secretary of State Ruth Johnson, Supreme Court Justice Mary Beth Kelly, and Lansing Mayor Virg Bernero, winner of the Democratic gubernatorial primary. None of the independent spending for television supporting Johnson or Bernero’s primary win was disclosed. Only a small fraction of that which supported Kelly was disclosed.

Independent spenders were similarly dominant in Michigan’s most contested congressional campaigns in 2010. In total, the major-party candidates raised $12.5 million in the races for the 1st, 7th and 9th Congressional Districts. Independent spenders weighed in with $18 million. The $9.2 million spent by non-candidate committees in the 7th District, where Tim Walberg defeated Mark Schauer, was the most independent spending in any U.S. House race in the country in 2010.

Nearly all the independent spending in the congressional campaigns was reported to the Federal Election Commission. Only those ads purchased by Americans for Prosperity outside the 60-day window before the election were not. Disclosure of contributors to the independent spenders was a mixed bag. The U.S. Supreme Court’s 2010 decision in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission allowed corporations to openly participate in federal elections for the first time in more than 100 years, and nonprofit advocacy corporations do not disclose their donors.

“We’ve entered an era when a small group of undisclosed financial backers can drive an election outcome without leaving any fingerprints,” said Rich Robinson of the Michigan Campaign Finance Network. “That is absolutely poisonous for democracy. And anyone who believes that kind of financial support is given for selfless reasons is delusional. Top-tier political donors are investors, and they get a return on their investment.”

The Citizens United decision was unambiguous in establishing the constitutional permissibility of requiring disclosure of contributors for all electioneering activity, including “issue” advocacy. However, state and federal lawmakers have failed to enact meaningful campaign finance disclosure, so far.

“Transparency and accountability gets lip-service in Lansing, but nobody is stepping up to address the deplorable lack of transparency and accountability in Michigan political campaigns,” said Robinson. “Apparently, officeholders and stakeholders are betting that citizen ignorance and apathy is a permanent condition. Unless citizens start acting like citizens, and demand accountability, they can count on being left in the dark for a good long time.”

The 2010 Citizen’s Guide includes campaign finance summaries of all state campaigns and lists of top contributors to election winners, party committees, legislative caucus PACs and the top officeholders’ leadership PACs.

The 2010 Citizen’s Guide to Michigan Campaign Finance is available online in pdf format at http://www.mcfn.org, or it is available in printed format from MCFN at no charge.

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