The Role of Third Party Groups in State Legislative Elections: Policy Debates, or Hatfield vs. McCoys?
Written By Bob Haus
Iowa’s 2012 legislative primaries saw a number of “independent expenditures” from groups not associated with the candidates or the candidates’ committees. These groups, such as the National Rifle Association, Iowa Credit Union League, Iowa Family Policy Center and others, are allowed spend to advocate for the election or defeat of candidates. They are subject to reporting requirements at the state level, detailing their spending and type of activity undertaken. These expenditures are often in lieu of or in addition to the traditional political action committee (PAC) support given to their chosen candidates.
Over the past several election cycles, we’ve seen an increasing number of these groups get involved in federal and state elections. This proliferation has been due to federal changes to campaign finance laws (most notably McCain / Feingold), as well as the US Supreme Courts’ decision striking down key provisions of that law based on First Amendment freedom of speech grounds. On the federal level we’ve seen an explosion of the presence of “SuperPACs”, groups who are not subject to the contribution limits covering candidates.
Some early 2012 research indicated voters perceive these outside groups are having a negative effect on political discourse. I have been consistent in my opinion that free speech is free speech, and that in the marketplace of ideas, everyone’s opinion is welcomed.
I have maintained that American voters and especially those in Iowa are quite savvy. These outside groups are free to share their “opinions”…but voters will sort out the wheat from the chaff, as we’d say here. We have begun to see that happening in the political marketplace and in Iowa.
Let me pick two examples from last night’s primary. First, in the Des Moines area, a very contentious Iowa Senate primary developed between incumbent Republican Senator Pat Ward and her challenger, Waukee pastor Jeff Mullen. Second, in rural Northeast Iowa, two incumbent Republican House members, Representatives Pat Grassley and Annette Sweeney, squared off in a primary battle due to redistricting.
All four candidates had ardent supporters. As the campaign heated up in the months of May and early June, however, it became clear that at least two of the candidates (Grassley and Ward) had some very serious detractors as well. The actions of these outside groups had a distinct impact on the respective races.
In the Ward / Mullen race, the opposing outside groups took very different approaches. Credit unions with membership in Senator Ward’s district stood behind the candidate that shared their members’ values and goals. They sent direct mail to Republican credit union members (here) and a larger universe of all Republican primary voters (here and here), The mail was positive in nature, and in concert with the positive mailings from the National Rifle Association (oversized blaze orange postcards) showed the broad appeal on fiscal and conservative issues that Senator Ward embodied.
But the efforts of these groups never overshadowed what the Ward campaign was doing for itself, and that is a key difference to her competitor, Mr. Mullen. The Ward campaign effort, led by Brian Dumas of Victory Enterprises, advertised on television and radio, promptly answered every attack, and had a distinct on the ground effort. They sent a flood of pro-Ward mail into the district, identified Ward supporters, and then turned them out to vote. They organized volunteers to go door to door, drop literature, and did the things most successful campaigns do.
Mr. Mullen and his allies attacked Senator Ward, relentlessly. His campaign missed many of the “small ball” elements that the Ward campaign was doing. And, even more damaging, he seemed to turn over the campaign to the very outside groups that were attacking Senator Ward. In so doing, he missed an opportunity to establish himself as a viable candidate and let those groups direct the tenor of the campaign. In the end, it cost him dearly: Senator Ward won handily, 58% to 42%. Mr. Mullen failed to even carry his home county of Dallas in the race, an area thought to be his stronghold.
In the Grassley / Sweeney race, the approach taken by at least one outside group seemed to cross the line, and take the debate more into personality and family lineage rather than policy. These efforts threatened to turn the race into a Hatfield/McCoy feud, where reason is lost and people barely remember what they’re even fighting about. The electorate in that district sorted it out rather quickly, and Representative Grassley won a commanding 61% to 39% victory. Unfortunately, the outside groups’ efforts appear to have backfired and had a negative impact on the very candidate they sought to help.
As the dust settles on the June 5th primaries, these are my initial conclusions:
- Campaigns should know they operate in the new environment where these groups will be playing a pivotal role. Not every race will attract independent expenditures, but many will and campaigns will have to be prepared.
- Candidates and campaigns can’t take their eye off the ball. They have to do the fundamental work of defining themselves as if these outside groups aren’t involved.
- Candidates and campaigns can’t cede control of their races to these groups. The law says candidates may not “coordinate” with these groups. Practical good sense says candidates shouldn’t rely on them, either.
- Doing so means the candidate is blindly placing his or her trust in an independent group that has its own distinct agenda.
- Voters are smart. Never underestimate their ability to see through the haze and deduce rather quickly what’s actually happening.
Both Senator Ward and Representative Grassley understood the elements of the new political paradigm. They conducted themselves well, communicated effectively with the voters, worked hard, and were justly rewarded.
In the long term, I’m not that worried about the presence of independent expenditures or outside groups in the political arena. To be sure, there will be more positive and negative messages distributed about candidates. In my humble opinion, however, more free speech is better than less. It may make the debate a little noisier and require voters to filter more messages prior to reaching their decisions. The overall system will be policed with engaged voters at the controls, and I believe we started to see that development last night in Iowa.
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