At least the ads will end Tuesday.
Whether the campaigns end then is a different story. Polls show a dead heat in Washington’s most prominent race, for U.S. Senate, and campaigners in down-ballot races are bracing for recounts.
But the television commercials that make Sen. Patty Murray and challenger Dino Rossi out to be corrupt villains will be retired. The mailers that paint your state lawmaker as an irresponsible spender or her challenger as a dangerous extremist will be consigned to the trash.
If the ads seem more negative this year, it’s partly because of all the outside groups in the fray. Without lifting a finger, candidates can have a shadow campaign run on their behalf, without having to answer for negative ads.
Outside groups have spent more than $18 million on the Murray-Rossi clash, according to the nonpartisan Sunlight Foundation.
Some of the biggest spenders don’t disclose where their money comes from. A 5-4 U.S. Supreme Court ruling opened the door to unlimited spending by corporations through groups that don’t have to disclose their donors.
Ever since the first major independent advertisement in July by the American Action Network, with the memorable image of a Murray double in muddy tennis shoes walking on a child’s back, a parade of mostly Republican-leaning groups have taken advantage of the new rules. The Democratic Party’s senate campaign committee, national teachers union and other liberal groups have fired back with their own ads targeting Rossi.
On a smaller budget, negative independent ads also are invading local races.
In the suburban swing districts that determine the shape of the Legislature, voters are climbing out of piles of hit pieces.
Consider the mail that has arrived at homes in the 28th Legislative District, centered on Lakewood:
The state Republican Party slams Rep. Troy Kelley, D-Tacoma, for voting for “record-breaking spending increases,” and, in the same mailer, blames him for just the opposite: cuts to schools that sent public employees packing.
The Washington Education Association asks over a picture of a little girl, “Who will protect our kids from Steve O’Ban’s extreme agenda?” Many of the “extreme” positions cited in the teachers union’s mailers are those not of O’Ban himself, a lawyer and Kelley’s Republican challenger, but of his legal clients. One client has ties to television commentator Glenn Beck, it says.
Rep. Tami Green, a Democrat, is described as “part of the problem” in Olympia in a mailer that highlights her votes on tax and spending measures. It is paid for by a group called People for Jobs. Required to reveal the group’s top five contributors, it says there is only one, labeled “Enterprise Washington’s JobsPAC.”
A mailer that slams Paul Wagemann, Green’s challenger, says the Republican developer has mismanaged his company, citing a series of financial problems including lawsuits and liens against the firm. The mailer says it is sponsored by Stride PAC, with just one donor, called Move PAC.
TRACKING THE MONEY
At the state level, at least, diligent voters can go online and follow the money to its source – most of the time.
One exception came during the primary election campaign: Mailers promoting a conservative candidate while attacking state Sen. Jean Berkey, D-Everett, for increasing taxes. The mailers identified two political action committees that didn’t report receiving or spending any money.
Though they attacked Berkey from the right, it turned out they were paid for by a Democratic political consultant working for unions and liberal interest groups.
They wanted to squeeze Berkey into third place to eliminate her in favor of the more liberal Democrat in the race, Nick Harper, but they weren’t eager to let people know that. An investigation revealed that consultant Lisa MacLean told her clients not to worry: “It would likely take much longer for any reporter or blogger to link it to any of you before election day.”
The Washington State Labor Council, the Washington Federation of State Employees and the trial lawyers group Washington Association for Justice agreed to pay for the $9,000 effort, which MacLean described as “simulating crappy GOP mail.”
Attorney General Rob McKenna sued MacLean on Friday over alleged violations of campaign laws.
Now the same consulting firm, Moxie Media, is sending out similar hit pieces against Republican legislative candidates, like the ones attacking Wagemann. Republicans are complaining about the secretive spending, echoing the outcry of Democrats on the federal level.
There’s no evidence Moxie has violated any law in the other districts. But targets of the mailers, such as Wagemann, J.T. Wilcox of Roy and South King County’s Joe Fain and Katrina Asay, blasted Moxie for creating a spider web of more than 40 PACs that make the money harder to trace.
Kevin Carns, director of the House Republican Organizational Committee, said he’s sure more violations will be found in some of that accounting.
“They’re spending dirty money against Jean Berkey,” Carns said. “If they’re willing to do that against one of their own, I’m pretty sure they’re willing to break the law against a Republican.”
MacLean didn’t return a phone call for comment. But unlike in Berkey’s race, general election voters can trace the money, mostly to unions and other groups that are Moxie’s usual fundraisers.
In one set of mailers, though, most of the money comes from the Roosevelt Fund, run by state Senate Democrats. Mailers attacking Fain say he wants higher taxes, which he disputes.
“They’re accusing me of wanting to do exactly what they spent the last 12 months doing in Olympia,” said Fain, who is challenging Sen. Claudia Kauffman, D-Kent. “And they’re using these shell political action committees to hide that, to hide from the voters.”
Chris Gregorich, director of the Senate Democratic Campaign Committee, said that when his group pays for an independent mailer like those by Moxie, it isn’t involved in the decisions about content of the ads.
Gregorich said similarly secretive mail pieces are being sent by business interests like Enterprise Washington, which like Moxie uses multiple PACs that allow it to avoid naming donors on its mailers. The mailers have attacked candidates of both parties, mostly Democrats.
“The business community is going after people that actually were very, very supportive of them and their agenda,” Gregorich said.
Enterprise Washington president Erin McCallum said the firm prides itself on transparency. Voters can go to its website, enterprise washington.org, to find its members, she said.