Special interest-funded party groups spend further and further down-ballot
The growing emphasis on state policy goals by both political parties has led to the proliferation of political organizations designed to raise and spend money – much of it from special interests – to win specific state offices. The most prominent of these groups are the Democratic and Republican Governors Associations, but other party-connected groups target secretary of state, state legislator, and state Supreme Court races.
These special interest-backed groups, which are organized under section 527 of the tax code, go even further down-ballot than one might expect. Take two relatively new groups, for instance. The Republican Agriculture Commissioners Committee (RACC) and Community Leaders of America (CLA) are using the model of existing party 527 groups to elect Republicans in agriculture commissioner, mayoral, and city council races. Both groups were established ahead of the 2014 elections and quickly started raising significant sums from special interests.
As its name suggests, the RACC seeks to elect Republicans to the position of agriculture commissioner in the 12 states where it’s an elected office:
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Agriculture commissioners’ responsibilities vary by state, but include food safety issues, animal industry oversight, and regulating the use of pesticides.
Between forming early in 2013 and the end of 2014, the RACC raised $775,231. Like other party 527 groups, the RACC’s top donors are policy stakeholders. In 2013-14, the RACC received more than 97% of its contributions from corporations and trade associations. Many of the group’s few individual donors were executives of its corporate funders. More than a third of the RACC’s funding came from a single corporate donor, southern states’ grocery store Publix Super Markets, which gave $300,000. The group’s other top donors that cycle included tobacco giant Reynolds American ($60,909), agrochemical and biotech corporation Monsanto ($31,206), Feld Entertainment, which owns two top circus companies ($25,612), and fertilizer manufacturer Miracle-Gro ($23,391).
So far this election cycle, the RACC has raised $319,850, with less than $300 from individual donors. Publix Super Markets ($100,000) and Reynolds American ($50,000) again led the pack, followed by a non-profit, Protect the Harvest, which advocates for ranchers, hunters, and other animal owners ($20,594). Food makers’ trade association Grocery Manufacturers Association ($15,297), and retailer Wal-Mart ($15,000) were the fourth and fifth top givers.
The RACC disclosed contributions to Republican candidates for state agriculture commissioner and to state Republican parties in Mississippi, North Dakota, South Carolina, Louisiana, and Georgia. In 2014, Republicans won a clean sweep of seven agriculture commissioner races. Today, a Republican fills 11 of the 12 elected positions.
If the RACC is proof there’s no office too obscure for a concentrated party effort funded by policy stakeholders, the lesson of Community Leaders of America is that there’s no office too local. CLA seeks to elect Republicans to mayoral and city council positions with the help of corporate cash. The group was created “as a direct response to the lack of a unified national strategy supporting Republicans running for local elected offices.” Like more well–known state-spending groups, it is involved at multiples stages of the electoral process: candidate recruitment, training, and campaign financing. The group also provides “a forum where local elected leaders and members of the private sector can partner” to talk policy.
Between forming in July 2013 and the end of the 2014 election cycle, CLA raised $127,000. Every single contribution came from a corporation or trade association, many of them local government contractors. The group’s top 2014 donors included tobacco company Altria ($50,000), electric and gas power company Duke Energy ($25,000), landscaping corporation TruGreen ($15,000), utilities company Optech Monette ($10,000), and payday lender Advance America ($10,000).
So far in the 2016 election cycle, CLA has already raised more than six times what the group raised last cycle, $766,315. Just $2,279 came from individual donors. Top contributors include Altria ($100,000), appliance and utilities giant General Electric ($66,746), Reynolds American ($60,279), and waste disposal companies Republic Services ($53,279) and Waste Management ($32,779).
CLA has reported contributions to sixteen mayoral campaigns, including $25,000 to a PAC supporting Lenny Curry’s campaign in Jacksonville, Florida and $7,600 to David Fox’s campaign in Nashville, Tennessee. CLA has also given to local Republican party groups in San Diego, California, Harris County, Texas, and Albuquerque, New Mexico. In addition, the group reported a $5,000 contribution to a section 501(c)(4) dark money nonprofit, Catalyst Oklahoma, which spent in an Oklahoma City, Oklahoma mayoral race in 2014. CLA also reported a $10,000 contribution to Michigan Advocacy Trust, an organization CREW filed an IRS complaint against for spending millions of dollars on political ads supporting Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette without disclosing its donors. Oddly, the contribution came just a month before Michigan Advocacy Trust shuttered.
The RACC and CLA have more in common than their focus on electing Republicans in down-ballot races with industry cash. The groups share an Executive Director, Tim Barnes, who is also the founder of both groups’ top payee, Blue Wave Strategies. Barnes is a veteran of the party 527 fundraising and spending model: he was an early executive director of the Republican Attorneys General Association and chairman of the Republican State Leadership Committee before resigning amidst an investigation into a pass-through campaign finance scheme.
Democrats don’t appear to have analogous groups to the RACC and CLA, but it’s probably just a matter of time until they organize efforts to win the offices these groups target. Republicans’ REDMAP redistricting project led the Democratic Party to develop its own redistricting initiative, and both parties recently turned secretary of state races into big money affairs. The formation of the RACC and CLA, along with their fundraising success, demonstrate that no office is exempt from the onslaught of money from corporations and industry groups in elections.