05 Aug

Huge outside political spending helps state economy, but not state politics

The Oregon Senate race is having some trouble making anybody’s list of this fall’s most hotly contested contests. But it’s finally making a contribution to the state’s economic development activities:

Recently, the multibillionaire Koch brothers’ political action committee, Freedom Partners, revealed a television buy of at least $3.6 million in support of GOP candidate Monica Wehby.

Normally, when an outside operation announces it’s investing that much in Oregon, it gets a nice press conference with the governor.

States are particularly welcoming when dealing with people with almost unlimited resources. The Kochs’ holdings are in the dozens of billions. Freedom Partners, a coalition of groups and people each kicking at least $100,000 to the cause, spent $256 million on politics in 2012, and the rate is rising. If they’re pleased with their U.S. Senate buy, maybe they’d consider investing in a few legislative seats.

Attracting sizable investments in local issues may not be as unlikely as it seems. In May, another Koch operation, Americans for Prosperity, spent heavily to defeat a Columbus, Ohio, zoo levy. Observers knew about their objections to Democratic senators; it wasn’t clear what they had against lemurs.

Increasingly, in states like West Virginia and Iowa and North Carolina, large outside independent spending is spilling into state judicial races, which in Oregon have been quiet, polite affairs, bringing hardly any money into the state at all.

But the recently announced Freedom Partners television buy gives Oregon a position in one of 2014’s major growth industries: independent political expenditures. We may not reach the position of states where outside TV campaign buys are becoming major part of the economy, but they show us what’s possible.

Thursday, the Federal Election Committee issued its July 31 report, showing outside Super PAC spending this year of $13,602,455 on the North Carolina Senate race; $11,642,371 on the Mississippi Senate race (all in two rounds of the Republican primary); and $10,656,197 in Kentucky. Oregon was 17th at $1,143,574 (just about all in the Republican primary) suggesting that the people running our state economic development plan really could be doing better.

And those numbers are clearly an underestimate. At the beginning of July, according to the Charlotte Observer, the North Carolina Senate candidates had already tracked more than $26 million in outside money spent on their race, including “Dark Money” groups who don’t have to list their contributors or report to the FEC. The New York Times calculated last week that compared with 2010, when North Carolina did not have a competitive Senate race, the total is literally 100 times greater.

Projecting that out through the three months remaining in the campaign, you can imagine a North Carolina Senate race that could begin to compensate for declines in the tobacco business.

Admittedly, this money – which by the end of this year is likely to come to about $2 billion – doesn’t go evenly into a state’s economy, going almost entirely to television stations. But, according to the thinking of trickle-down economics, the TV stations then spend the money on new cameras and helicopters and ties for the anchormen, and the money spreads out.

The announcement of the $3.6 million Freedom Partners buy expands the race’s impact on the Oregon economy. If the buy helps close the double-digit gap between Wehby and incumbent Democratic Sen. Jeff Merkley, the Senate race will bring in lots more money, including Democratic cash and probably some more Freedom Partners spending.

At that point, outside political money could actually affect the Oregon economy, although it would make watching Portland television in October kind of challenging.

There are also other drawbacks. In the first week of the Freedom Partners buy, in the second week of August, the organization will spend more than $600,000, more than either actual candidate has so far spent on television. This creates a race that runs way beyond the control of the people running for the job.

“It makes it harder for the campaign to control the message,” Will Feltus, a Republican media buyer, told the Times. “Somebody else can set the message agenda for the campaign.”

It’s also a particular kind of message, since the outside expenditure ads are overwhelmingly negative.

If a candidate wants to be heard in his or her own campaign, it takes a lot more time raising money, meaning less time talking to voters.

The Supreme Court insists that political spending can’t be regulated, because money is speech. But actually, political money can drown out political speech.

Even if it’s invested in the state economy.

NOTE: This column appeared in The Oregonian Sunday, 8/3/14.