In Ohio, political money gets around

Dayton Daily News shows how local lawmakers shuffle campaign donations to cash-strapped colleagues

OHIO—A thorough peek behind a curtain of campaign cash this week by the Dayton Daily News shed real light on one way that political money moves.

The newspaper, in a story crafted by Jeremy P. Kelley, walked readers through the legal, but perhaps not widely-known, practices by which money donated to a candidate on cruise control is diverted to another fighting for his political life. Kelley focused on the frequency with which local politicians in Ohio, in particular, pass along portions of their campaign contributions to the state parties to help other statewide candidates.

Citing data from the National Institute on Money in State Politics (see this recent pair of Swing States Project pieces for more on this and other top campaign finance resources for reporters), Kelley revealed that for the 2010-11 cycle, the Buckeye State led the nation—by a huge margin—for politicians redirecting locally-collected campaign cash to the state parties.

The data showed that the state Republican and Democratic parties got $31.02 million from individual candidates’ committees for the cycle. Pennsylvania came in second with $18.39 million similarly passed along, and New York followed at $14.4 million.

Kelley delivered the “so what” in the third paragraph:

The data shows that the lack of competitive statehouse races helps create a system where incumbents can send extra money to tighter districts where it can help swing an election. But it also means donors who contribute because they like a particular candidate end up helping candidates they may know nothing about.

Kelley presented the striking example of Republican Bill Beagle from the Dayton area, who barely raised $12,000 in his 2010 race against incumbent state Democratic Sen. Fred Strahorn. Wrote Kelley:

But in the two months before Election Day, the Ohio Republican Party and its Senate Campaign Committee poured in $908,067—collected from other Republican senators and representative around the state—for television ads and mailings that helped Beagle win the vote 51 percent to 49 percent.

Kelley went on to cite other cases from both political camps in which some candidates forked over to the state parties more than 90 percent of their local campaign contributions. But it’s Ohio’s Republican Party, Kelley reported, that “has a huge advantage so far this year,” with $8.31 million on hand in three state-specific funds compared to some $750,000 on hand for state Democrats. “That means,” wrote Kelley, “state Republicans could be ready this fall to pay for more ad blitzes like the one that helped propel Beagle to victory.”

One nit to pick: the story took a while to clearly make the point that many people are likely unaware of this practice, and might not like it if made aware.

More than halfway into the piece, readers heard from Gene Beaupre, a political science professor at Xavier University, and Edwin Bender, executive director of the National Institute for Money in State Politics, agreeing that even the “more sophisticated donors” may not have a clue that their contributions may be shuffled.

Bender explained:

There is a big distinction between the institutional givers who want to make sure they have a say at the table, and the individuals. The individuals are going to be saying, ‘I like this (candidate), I like who he is and what he believes in.’ They may not support the guy in the next district over.

Further down in the story, Bender raised the question of just who is being served by this practice:

Certainly there’s nothing illegal about it, but you do have to wonder if someone is sending 50-60-70 percent of their money to the party, are they being somewhat disingenuous with their constituents? To raise so much more money than you need does cause someone to scratch their head… . That’s the candidates representing the political party, not their constituents.

Representatives from the state parties, and most of the candidates cited in the story, declined to comment.

In an email, Kelley told me he took over the politics beat at the Daily News in February and decided to create an election cycle campaign finance database to look for story-worthy trends.

Working part time on this effort, he created the database, spotted this money-moving trend from the National Institute data, and completed the interviews for the piece in about two weeks.

“I think this story explained a system that few people understood,” Kelley wrote via email. “[H]opefully it connected some dots for voters.

“The political parties draw ‘safe’ districts, so they don’t need to raise much money there to hold the seat, but then they raise the money anyway and funnel it to other areas where it can sway a tight election. Beagle’s election is the perfect example.”

Stayed tuned. Kelley said he intends to expand his Ohio campaign finance database to sniff out more stories.

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T.C. Brown covered government and politics in the Ohio Statehouse Bureau for The Plain Dealer of Cleveland for more than 17 years, and he has also written for other local, state and national publications. Brown is a founding partner in Webface, a social media communication company.