In Ohio, the money-in-politics story is rich

Reporters in Cleveland, Columbus, and Dayton follow the money

OHIO — The money being thrown at political campaigns and advertising here in Ohio is coming so fast and furious it’s hard to keep track—a plus, perhaps, in the minds of many of the benefactors.

So it was good to see some attention paid to the money-in-politics story by The Plain Dealer of Cleveland, the Dayton Daily News and The Columbus Dispatch in recent days.

On Thursday, the Plain Dealer’s Washington DC bureau chief, Stephen Koff, took a look at campaign fundraising accounts that are typically off the public’s radar but which are controlled, in part, by incumbent Democratic Sen. Sherrod Brown and his GOP opponent and Ohio Treasurer Josh Mandel.

These accounts, Koff explained, are separate from the candidates’ standard campaign funds, are legal, and are often affiliated with national, state and local political parties. They also draw big money and give donors the opportunity to bypass the federally-imposed individual-to-candidate donation limitation of $5,000.

In effect, per Koff’s headline, Brown and Mandel “raise more dollars than you may have known.” Yes, in the first three months of 2012, the Mandel campaign raised $2 million and the Brown campaign brought in nearly $2.4 million, reported Koff:

But it turns out [these totals] overlook additional eye-popping fund-raising accounts controlled in part by the candidates. These accounts tapped the ability of Mandel and Brown to attract big donors, then split the proceeds with their respective political parties and affiliates.

Koff reported that in the first three months this year Mandel raised nearly $1 million in the Mandel Senate Victory Committee, an account separate from his election campaign account, Citizens for Josh Mandel. Wrote Koff:

This committee collected some checks that would make the ordinary $2,500 and $5,000 donations from successful lawyers and CEOs look like panhandler change.

Like, as Koff noted, a $40,800 donation to the Victory Committee from the president of Ariel Corporation, “a Mount Vernon, Ohio maker of gas compressors” (after a quick scan of the Victory Committee’s FEC filings—to which Koff could have linked in the online version of his piece, as well as to filings for Citizens for Josh Mandel—I found another $40,800 donation from another Ariel executive) and numerous donations from “payday lenders who attended a Mandel fundraising event in the Bahamas in early March.”

Koff’s was a revealing look at one lesser-known piece of the campaign finance story and, as to be expected, was brimming with numbers. But all those figures were also a bit muddling. A graphic or chart of the flow of funds would have been an aid to readers. An outside campaign finance or political expert could have also brought some perspective into the story.

Next, the Dayton Daily News on Saturday published a report on outside interest groups’ massive “spending spree” on political advertising in Ohio—an estimated $8.9 million to date on the Brown-Mandel Senate contest alone—and why so much of this spending is difficult to track.

Because the majority of these advertisements are “issue ads,” meaning they do not advocate directly for or against a particular candidate (Kelley should have defined this for readers earlier than the thirteenth paragraph), there is no legal requirement to report this spending right away, making it nearly impossible to track. While Kelley’s piece had definite strengths, his efforts to explain what spending by which groups must be reported to whom and how often fall short. Most readers know very little about campaign finance regulations and the loopholes therein and would benefit from such information clearly spelled out, up high and in one place.

Here is an example of how to do that in one fell swoop (from a report this week by one of Kelley’s sources, the Center for Responsive Politics’ Bob Biersack):

Unfortunately, we can’t see all the outside spending in an election cycle, even when it’s right there on TV.

That’s because there’s a disclosure gap for issue ads—the ubiquitous messages that typically end with a plea along the lines of “Call Senator Smith and tell him to stop raising taxes” or some other message. Broadcast ads of this type—many of which are run by 501(c) organizations that don’t disclose their donors—become reportable electioneering communications only when they air close to an election and are targeted to the voters who are about to go to the polls. Otherwise, though, they aren’t reported at all beyond vague references in tax forms filed months or years after the election.

The only way to know what’s happening is to track the ads themselves, either by examining the public files at individual TV stations or by purchasing tracking data that estimates the cost of ads based on when and where they appear…

So, Kelley took it upon himself to visit Dayton’s four local TV stations and peruse their public inspection files (where the stations are required by law to keep paper records of political ad buys), as CJR did earlier this year. (This is information that will eventually be made available online, thanks to a recent Federal Communication Commission ruling.)

Among Kelley’s findings: $244,235 spent on 493 ads between May 22 and June 18 by Crossroads GPS, “the conservative group tied to Republican strategist Karl Rove, which supports Mitt Romney and Mandel.”

While Kelley’s focus was on where all this money is going or being spent, he should have noted somewhere that we also don’t know from where much of this money comes—that this is largely “dark money,” as 501(c)’s like Crossroads GPS and 60-Plus (two Kelley mentions) are not required to disclose their donors.

Kelley does put into perspective, with quotes from John Sides, a political science professor at George Washington University, the sheer craziness of all of this money, and whether or not it might influence voters:

But Sides said timing is key, and other than name recognition, groups spending millions of dollars months in advance of the election, may not get the results they desire.

“There is some evidence that within a week or two, the effects of a campaign ad binge decay and voters forget,” he said. “I wonder whether a lot of this early money is essentially being wasted. I’m not sure that there’s as much bang for the buck.”

A small nit: the Daily News should have included outbound links in Kelley’s piece—like, for his references to, (both useful resources for readers) and to this recent Roll Call article.

Finally, The Columbus Dispatch’s Joe Hallett on Sunday drew on campaign finance reports, in part, to take on an “oft-made” claim by Republican Josh Mandel that droves of Democrats, including “union leaders,” have offered their support for his Senate campaign against Democrat Sherrod Brown. (Mandel, as I’ve written about before, is no stranger to—and, apparently, unfazed by—PolitiFact’s “Pants on Fire” rating).

“The issue of Democratic support has come to the fore,” wrote Hallett, “because Mandel unfailingly brags about it in speeches and interviews.” And yet:

A Dispatch analysis of campaign-finance records found no union contributions to Mandel and, so far, he has received no union endorsements. Brown’s campaign has received at least $332,500 from labor unions since he was elected in 2007 and he has received money from or been endorsed by most of the state’s unions.

And, of the “four registered Democrats” the Mandel campaign offered the Dispatch as “evidence” of Democratic backing, Hallett reported that “one of them is an independent who says she has supported candidates from both parties.”

Adding a dash of salt to that wound, Hallett reported that Brown’s fifth largest business contributor was a $54,425 donation from the Cleveland real estate firm Forest City Enterprises, owned by the Ratner family. Mandel’s wife is a granddaughter of one of the Ratners who started Forest City, but family ties apparently are overrated, as noted by Hallett. Indeed, 15 Ratners have donated to Brown so far this campaign cycle and just two have donated to Mandel.

Hallett also noted that a May Quinnipiac University poll giving Brown a 6-point lead over Mandel showed that only 5 percent of surveyed Democrats said they would vote for Mandel, compared with 10 percent of Republicans who said they support Brown.

In other words, as Hallett’s headline had it, Mandel’s frequent claim of Democratic support remains “unproven.”

The piece would also have been well served to include some commentary or insight from someone outside of the campaigns on how, if at all, Mandel’s campaign could be affected if he continues to claim droves of Democratic support without proof. Misinformation is a big deal and appears, more and more, to be the norm for many candidates.

Some solid work by Ohio reporters, with much work still ahead. Here’s hoping they stay on these 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.