DES MOINES — Advocacy groups put more than $700,000 into mailings, media and organizing on behalf of 2012 Iowa Statehouse candidates who, legally, had no control over what was said and whose opponents had no idea where the money came from.
The groups pushed same-sex and traditional marriage, education and tax reform, and changes to state rules governing credit unions. They spent what turned out to be a record amount of money on candidates under rules governing independent expenditures.
Even more was spent by groups hoping to influence the outcome of the Iowa Supreme Court retention vote.
Independent expenditures allow unlimited contributions from people and corporations to groups that can spend it for political purposes as long as they do not coordinate with an official campaign. Nor do they have to disclose contributors. It is one of the reasons critics sometimes call independent expenditures “dark money.”
Political Action Committees, or PACs, can coordinate with campaigns, and donors do not have contribution limits, but corporations are not allowed to contribute to PACs. Donors who give more than $10 have to provide a name and address.
It is the last point that has Megan Tooker, the executive director of the Iowa Ethics and Campaign Disclosure Board, concerned.
Her office will introduce legislation in the upcoming session that requires disclosure of the names and addresses of contributors who donate more than $25 to an independent expenditure committee.
“It doesn’t seem fair that if you contribute to a PAC, you have to have disclosure, but if you make a contribution to an independent expenditure group, you don’t have to disclose,” she said. “Citizens United told us that corporations can contribute to campaigns, but it didn’t define what the disclosure had to be. It kind of left that up to us to figure it out.”
On a national level, groups such as Priorities USA and Restore Our Future raised and spent millions on behalf of President Barack Obama, Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney and congressional seats.
A few national groups also made their presence known in Iowa legislative races. Students First, the education reform group headed by former Washington, D.C., schools chancellor Michelle Rhee, spent $317,794.86 on legislative races. The America Votes Action Fund, headed by former directors of the Sierra Club, Emily’s List and the Service Employees International Union, put $52,977.51 into legislative races.
Local groups were in the mix as well. The Iowa Credit Union League, for example, dropped $26,043 on legislative races. But most were playing catch-up to the Family Leader, the social conservative group that spent a combined $392,243.27 in independent expenditures on the judicial and legislative races in the state.
“We’re fine with whatever the legislature does (on disclosure),” said Chuck Hurley, the vice president of the Family Leader.
He said the Family Leader uses independent expenditures because it has proved to be “the most effective way to get our message out.” He said it allows the group to target its supporters with election information, regardless of who is running for office.
“We had a mailer go out in a district where, after the fact, a surrogate of a campaign said the mailer was not the message they were trying to get out,” Hurley said. “But to us, it was the message we knew would resonate with people who support our work. We weren’t working with any campaign.”
Tooker said the communication with campaign surrogates could be problematic.
“It’s a fine line. I don’t think there’s a problem with the Family Leader not making any more expenditures after learning that the independent expenditures are not welcome,” she said. “I do think it would be a coordinated expenditure and hence illegal for the Family Leader to modify its message and make additional expenditures after hearing the criticism on the first expenditure.”
A national push
Denise Roth Barber, the managing director of the Montana-based National Institute on Money in State Politics, said California’s disclosure law is a model she would like to see other states follow.
The law, which was upheld recently in the case of FPPC v. Americans for Responsible Leadership, requires ads paid for by independent expenditures to list the two highest contributors to the group if any contributor has given at least $50,000 or more.
It also requires that any mass mailing of 200 pieces or more must prominently include the name and address of the entity responsible for the mailer if made by a committee, corporation or person who has made donations of $10,000 or more in a year.
“There isn’t a problem with people wanting to keep their donations private to nonprofit groups or give anonymously to causes,” Barber said. “It becomes a problem when the donation is being given on a question of public policy or a political campaign. People have a right to know who is paying for political advocacy.”
Iowa House Speaker Kraig Paulsen, R-Hiawatha, said he would not comment on any proposed legislation until he saw it in its final form. But, he said, “something will have to be done” about independent expenditures in political campaigns.
“I can’t point to any race where an independent expenditure made a difference on the state level,” he said. “I think for sure there were some that were affected on the federal level. I think when you see more of that on the state level, more people will take notice.”
Independent expenditure groups spent more than $1.5 million on Iowa legislative and judicial elections. These were the top spenders in the 2012 election cycle:
Legislative election spending
Students First: $355,541.95
The Progress Project: $154,205.20
The Family Leader: $74,448.41
America Votes Action Fund: $52,977.51
Iowa Credit Union League: $26,043.82
Americans for Tax Reform: $18,463
Human Rights Campaign: $6,144.64
Judicial retention spending
The Family Leader: $317,794.86
Justice Not Politics Action: $227,297.93
National Organization for Marriage: $148,331.87
Justice Not Politics: $92,566.18
Iowa State Bar Association: $37,087.52
Human Rights Campaign: $5,068.89
Progress Iowa: $4,939.37
Source: Iowa Ethics and Campaign Disclosure Board
See a June 2012 report from the Public Interest Research Group that lists state-by-state efforts at disclosure after the Citizens United Supreme Court case: http://www.citizen.org/documents/sunlight-state-by-state-report.pdf