"Issue" advertising dominates 19th District TV campaign

Stealth financing hits new prominence for a state legislative race

LANSING – Candidate-focused “issue” advertising is dominating the television campaign for the 19th Senate District special election. Republican candidate Mike Nofs has purchased $148,000 worth of television time, while his supporters, the Michigan Chamber of Commerce ($104,446) the Michigan Republican Party ($38,609) and the Michigan Jobs and Labor Foundation ($71,587) have purchased a combined total of $214,642 in TV ads.

Democrat Martin Griffin has no visible television campaign at this point.

The advertising data represent gross sales and they were collected by the Michigan Campaign Finance Network from public files of Mid-Michigan television broadcasters and Comcast Cable.

Issue advertisements are not considered to be campaign expenditures under the prevailing interpretation of Michigan campaign finance law. They typically seek to define the suitability for office of one candidate or another, but they are careful not to include an explicit exhortation of a vote for or against a candidate. This distinction allows the sponsoring organization to aggregate financial support from corporations, which are not allowed to give money directly to candidates, and keep the identities of its contributors a secret.

For the past decade issue advertisements have been a prominent feature of state supreme court and gubernatorial campaigns, but this appears to be the first instance where such anonymous influence has dominated a legislative campaign.

The Michigan Jobs and Labor Foundation is registered with the State as a 501(c) (4) non-profit corporation whose resident agent is former state Sen. Beverly Hammerstrom. The advertisements attributed to the advocacy corporation were first placed with broadcasters by the Michigan Republican Party. Subsequent order revisions said that the Michigan Jobs and Labor Foundation was the responsible party.

The Michigan Republican Party’s advertisements, which are concentrated in the Grand Rapids television market, are labeled independent expenditures on the stations’ order forms. However, independent expenditures that are meant to influence special elections must be reported within 48 hours of the expenditure, and the MRP has failed to do so. This makes it ambiguous whether the Party will persist with its characterization of the ads as independent expenditures, or whether it will recast them as issue ads.

The Michigan Chamber’s TV ads were all placed through Comcast. The Chamber also has a robust radio issue advertising campaign that has spent $34,680, just through Citadel Broadcasting in Lansing. The radio campaign’s reach goes well beyond Citadel. None of this campaign activity is reported through the Chamber's political action committee.

“Mr. Nofs has run a very successful fundraising campaign in his own right,” said Rich Robinson of the Michigan Campaign Finance Network, “But this may turn out to be yet another campaign where more spending is off the books than what is reported.”

“Perhaps now that our political leaders have ‘succeeded’ with the State’s 2010 budget, they can turn their attention to some desperately needed legislation that would bring transparency and accountability to our political campaigns,” Robinson said.

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