Who is financing political campaigns? With current rules, it's hard to tell
Millions of dollars are being spent to elect the next governor of Michigan, much of it from anonymous donors who contribute to shadowy organizations backing the candidates.
It’s all legal, the result of porous state and federal campaign finance laws allowing individuals and businesses to contribute to political campaigns without revealing themselves.
Anyone who believes that transparent political campaigns are crucial to the fair functioning of democracy should be outraged.
“To me it’s an insult to the general public that we have to speculate on who is financing this advertising,” said Rich Robinson, executive director of the Michigan Campaign Finance Network, which tracks election expenditures. “We should know who is behind all this spending.”
Democratic gubernatorial nominee Virg Bernero didn’t spend a cent on television ads on his way to winning his party’s primary. He left that up to an opaque support group called the Genesee County Democratic Committee.
The committee spent $2 million in pro-Bernero television ads, according to Robinson. That helped lift the Lansing mayor to an upset win over House Speaker Andy Dillon.
On the Republican side of the primary, secretive groups with names such as Americans for Job Security and Michigan Business United spent nearly $1.5 million attacking candidates Pete Hoekstra, Mike Cox and Snyder.
Hoekstra, Cox, Snyder and a fourth Republican candidate, Mike Bouchard, accused one another of being behind the attacks.
Who’s behind the Genesee County Democratic Committee is anyone’s guess.
It’s reportedly a front group for organized labor contributions, but we don’t really know. The committee isn’t even registered with the state as a political organization or a nonprofit corporation.
A similar scenario is playing out in the general election campaign of Republican gubernatorial nominee Rick Snyder.
Snyder’s campaign has run only one television ad since Aug. 3. But his bid to become the state’s chief executive officer has been bolstered by $2.1 million worth of pro-Snyder ads paid for the Republican Governors Association.
Anonymous contributions from Michigan businesses apparently are helping to finance those ads.
As first reported in the Wall Street Journal, the Michigan Chamber of Commerce has been the biggest contributor so far this year to the Republican governors group.
Robinson, citing Internal Revenue Service records, said the chamber gave $2.5 million to the Republican Governors Association through June 30.
Where did the chamber get that money? Chamber President Rich Studley said it came mostly from Michigan businesses whose contributions can’t be traced through public records.
Studley said those businesses want to support the Republican Governors Association’s efforts to elect Republican governors in other states, as well.
“Lots of companies located here not only have keen interest in who will be governor of Michigan, but recognize what happens in other states can have a major impact on them,” Studley said.
A controversial Supreme Court ruling earlier this year lifted bans on political spending by corporations in candidate elections.
When I asked him if he thought there should be full disclosure of these contributions, Studley punted.
“That’s really not for me to say,” he told me. “It’s up to the Legislature and Congress to address that.”
So far, the Michigan Legislature has shown little interest in forcing full disclosure of campaign donations made to third-party groups.
The result could be more power for special interest groups that many political candidates claim to be running against.
“Those who have the deep pockets can sway public opinion and get people in a position of power to be at their beck and call,” said Rep. Lee Gonzales, a Flint Democrat who wants wider disclosure of campaign contributions.
Today, it’s a candidate for governor. Tomorrow the stakes could be higher.
As Studley puts it: “There’s a recognition that often governors become presidents.”
E-mail Rick Haglund at email@example.com.