Super PACs Take Advantage of Connecticut's New Campaign Finance Laws

 

Hal Mayforth

In a post-Citizens United world, the phrase “you vote with your feet” is outdated, replaced instead by “voting with one’s wallet.”

“We’re in the ‘money equals speech’ era,” says Gary Rose, chairman of the Government and Politics department at Sacred Heart University in Fairfield.

The equation will create different variables for election campaigns in Connecticut over the next year—including races for the General Assembly, the U.S. Congress and the governor’s office.

So far, each of the possible candidates for governor—and those expected to be candidates—have expressed an intention to qualify for the state’s public campaign-financing system. State Sen. Toni Boucher (R-Wilton), former ambassador to Ireland Tom Foley and Danbury Mayor Mark Boughton are all exploring a run, but have not yet officially committed. Sen. John McKinney (R-Fairfield), the minority leader, who is officially a candidate, and Gov. Dannel P. Malloy, who has not yet announced but is expected to do so, will also participate in public financing.

But in a world of campaigns where the money given to the candidates is dwarfed by amounts spent by outside interest groups and Super PACs, those monitoring elections aren’t calmed by the prospect of public campaign financing.

“There are new opportunities for people to go out and raise more money, or to get money through some kind of PAC,” says Cheri Quickmire, executive director for Common Cause Connecticut. “But there’s also the opportunity for people on the outside . . . to put money in. There’s no road map for this stuff. We’re returning to the wild west of campaign funding, and it’s the big challenge for those of us who really believe that corruption begins on the campaign trail.”

Ken Krayeske, director of New Haven’s Democracy Fund (the first trial at publicly financing municipal elections) is among many who are concerned Super PACs may affect elections via television advertising that sometimes confuses voters on messages and who is behind them.

“There are going to be air wars where you have a handful of people who have the ability to spend millions of dollars on races as outside expenditures,” he says. “Those people are really going to be able to impact the quality of the debate we have over the issues.”

Rose agrees, adding that past elections have been won and lost on television, and that will continue to be the case.

Krayeske suggests that big labor organizations will funnel money into elections as they always have, but education Super PACs will also be huge donors as well. Both parties will be affected and reap benefits, he says, “because both parties serve Wall Street.”

In the 2012 elections, the Republican-leaning Super PAC Voters for Good Government Inc., founded by billionaire Thomas Peterffy, chairman and CEO of the Greenwich-based Interactive Brokers Group Inc., injected $278,526 into local races. That was the largest Super PAC participant, and the first in Connecticut. Voters for Good Government has also already made headlines for teaming up with Foley for a poll prior to his exploratory committee announcement.

Super PACs don’t have to disclose how much they receive, and only have to name their top five largest contributors. Though Peterffy is believed to be the biggest contributor to Voters for Good Government, others who gave to his group include the Washington D.C.-based State Leadership committee out of, the Roger Sherman Liberty Inc. of Milford, the American Justice Partnership based in Lansing, Mich., and Americans for Job Security of Alexandria, Va. Even in financial disclosure forms from 2012 it’s not clear who was behind specific donations, and of those that could be determined, many came far outside the borders of Connecticut.

The rules put in place to prevent special interests from being able to buy a politician are gone, according to Krayeske. Future state races will see outside funds, and in greater amounts, meaning that the decisions made by the U.S. Supreme Court have now trickled down to the local level.

Rose especially expects Super PACs to show up in competitive Congressional races—as they started to do during the last go-round. Outside spenders are also reaching out to form relationships with candidates in the governor’s race. “They don’t donate just out of charity—there’s some type of relationship that’s established there that’s perceived as being in that organization’s interests in the long term,” he says.

The presence of Peterffy’s new money-dumping organization and other similar groups has reverberated beyond the November election and into the state’s General Assembly, moving the Democratic majority to change campaign-finance restrictions. State committees can now donate as much as they want to support candidates using public campaign financing; donor limits were doubled.

Because the amount of money a state party can give is now largely unrestricted, candidates are most likely going to stick with Super PACs in order to get the maximum funding.

Whereas other races have to worry about outside money flooding in, the General Assembly deals with internal money—how monies donated from outside groups is divvied up among candidates in each party.

“The state committees and party organizations in local towns are taking a more pronounced role in those races,” says Rose. “What that does is bring Republicans closer to their party’s leadership, and Democrats to theirs, and the end result is probably more polarization in the General Assembly.”

The incestuous nature of money in politics is one that is likely to grow unbridled in the 2014 election, shaping up to be a year of rich donors putting their money where their mouths—and voter’s eyes—are.

“They’ve opened the fountains,” says Krayeske. “It’s like they’ve created a giant chocolate fountain for political money—and who isn’t going to stick their finger in the big giant chocolate fountain?”

 

Super PACs Take Advantage of Connecticut's New Campaign Finance Laws

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