LANSING - The presidential air war is playing out in Michigan without participation of the candidates' campaign committees. Neither Barack Obama nor Mitt Romney has paid for television advertising in Michigan since the presidential primary on February 28th.
The television ad war has been a one-sided attack against the administration and policies of President Barack Obama, funded by 501-c-4 nonprofit "social welfare" corporations that will not disclose their donors. Americans for Prosperity, American Future Fund, 60 Plus Alliance, American Energy Alliance and Crossroads GPS have spent $5.8 million for candidate-focused "issue" advertisements designed to emphasize one issue: The unsuitability of Barack Obama to be reelected president.
The patchwork of rules regulating disclosure of donors behind political advertisements has been skirted easily by the groups that have dominated the presidential campaign in Michigan so far. Americans for Prosperity began the campaign in January and stopped its advertisements 31 days prior to the Michigan presidential primary election on February 28th, one day before a disclosure window opened that required reporting of donors to committees sponsoring "electioneering communications."
Electioneering communications are a specially designated class of issue advertisement that contain the name or image of a federal candidate, but no exhortation of a vote, that run within 30 days prior to a primary election or 60 days prior to a general election. In presidential election years there is an additional disclosure window that begins 30 days before a national political party convention.
American Future Fund picked up the attack campaign the day after the presidential primary, when the disclosure window for electioneering communications was again closed. American Future Fund was followed in succession by 60 Plus Alliance and American Energy Alliance. After a brief hiatus over the Easter holiday, American Future Fund and Americans for Prosperity returned to the air, bracketing a two week flight of ads by the SuperPAC Restore Our Future.
SuperPACs are required to disclose their donors, but they are free to accept contributions from nonprofit corporations and legal partnerships that do not.
The relay-style campaign ran until May 18th and all parties used the same advertising agency, Mentzer Media Services.
On May 17th Crossroads GPS, another 501-c-4 social welfare organization, assumed the advertising campaign. Crossroads GPS, which was founded by Republican strategist and Fox News commentator Karl Rove and former Republican National Committee chairman Ed Gillespie, ran a four-week $2 million ad blitz that ended June 19th.
With the exception of Restore Our Future, the vaunted SuperPACs have been missing in action in Michigan since the presidential primary. Restore Our Future, the SuperPAC Mitt Romney has identified as "my SuperPAC," spent just less than $600,000 for television advertising since the Michigan presidential primary. No other SuperPAC has been active.
SuperPACs probably will be ascendant after the disclosure window for electioneering communications by nonprofit corporations opens for the remainder of the campaign, later this month.
"What we're seeing is the demise of accountability in federal political campaigns," said Rich Robinson of the nonpartisan Michigan Campaign Finance Network. "This well-funded, highly coordinated campaign hid the identity of those who provided more than 90 percent of the money behind it. This is clearly not the world of transparency Justice Anthony Kennedy contemplated when writing for the majority of the Supreme Court in the Citizens United decision.
"All the pathologies of unlimited spending by unaccountable sources that have characterized Michigan state campaigns this century are now abundantly manifest in federal campaigns. These are extremely dark days for democracy," Robinson said.
Ad spending data were collected by the Michigan Campaign Finance Network from the public files of Michigan television broadcasters and cable systems.