HARTFORD, CT — When lawmakers changed Connecticut’s campaign finance system in 2013, they uncapped the amount of money state parties could spend on clean election candidates. The Democratic majority’s argument at the time was that the new law would help thwart last minute spending from outside groups. But this year, more independent expenditure groups — aka “outside groups” — are spending money.
Rewind to 2012, Voters for Good Government founded by Liz Kurantowitz, paid for ads attacking three Senate Democrats and one House Democrat. The PAC was the first outside expenditure group in Connecticut to take advantage of the U.S. Supreme Court’s Citizens United ruling, which opened the gates to uncoordinated spending by outside groups on campaigns.
That year, former Rep. Vickie Nardello, a Democrat from Prospect, lost her seat and blamed the spending by Voters for Good Government for her defeat.
In 2013, lawmakers — with the help of Gov. Dannel P. Malloy — increased the amount of money individuals could give to the so-called organizational committees, such as parties. Under the law, individuals can give up to $10,000 to party committees and up to $2,000 to leadership PACs.
The parties can, in turn, spend unlimited amounts of money on clean election candidates, who voluntarily participate in a clean election system and agree not to take money from state contractors. For agreeing to participate in the clean election system, these candidates receive $28,150 if they are running for a House seat and $95,710 if they are running for a Senate seat.
As of Oct. 20, the Democratic Party had spent $90,070 and the Republican Party has spent $48,169 on legislative races. On Tuesday, Legislative leadership PACs for both Republicans and Democrats reported having spent a total of about $574,050. That doesn’t include the money town committees are allowed to spend on candidates.
It means that so far, about $712,289 has been spent by the parties in an effort to counter spending by outside groups, which have thus far spent $1.38 million on legislative races in Connecticut.
Michael Brandi, executive director of the State Elections Enforcement Commission, reminded the League of Women Voters this past weekend that $11.4 million in clean election grants have been distributed to candidates this year — an amount that far outnumbers the spending done by independent expenditure groups and the parties combined.
Despite spending $1.38 million on General Assembly races so far, the outside groups can’t legally coordinate with candidates.
The bulk of the spending has been done by the Connecticut Business and Industry Association, which is targeting about 15 races, including four in the state Senate; Grow Connecticut, a Republican-funded organization, which has spent about half of its $350,000 on a digital ad campaign targeting three Senate races and 10 House races, and the other half on cable television ads; and Labor United for Connecticut, which had spent about $126,000 before canceling $37,500 in digital ads following backlash over its ad targeting of a Republican candidate.
Other smaller independent expenditure groups have spent anywhere from $1,260 to $78,000 on a variety of competitive races. The National Rifle Association recently spent $12,873 on four state Senate races in support of Republicans John French, Sen. Art Linares, R-Westbrook, Len Suzio, and Rep. Craig Miner, R-Litchfield, who is running for the state Senate.
There are at least three Charter school PACs also in the mix: Charters Care is supporting Sen. Steve Cassano, D-Manchester, and Rep. Aundre Bumgardner, R-Groton. Change Course CT, which is chaired by an employee of Democrats for Education Reform, spent money on Dennis Bradley’s failed primary challenge of Sen. Ed Gomes, D-Bridgeport, and is spending about $14,875 on Cassano’s re-election campaign, and Campaign for Connecticut’s Future just filed their paperwork on Oct. 28.
Founded with $60,000 from Real Reform Now Network, a dark money group that doesn’t reveal its donors, Campaign for Connecticut’s Future has spent $31,196 on direct mailers supporting Linares, who is facing a challenge from Essex First Selectman Norm Needleman. It plans to support seven more candidates with funding.
House Majority Leader Joe Aresimowicz, D-Berlin, last week decried the outside spending and vowed to figure out how to improve the system.
But Cheri Quickmire, executive director of Common Cause in Connecticut, said there’s no way for Connecticut to limit outside spending because the U.S. Supreme Court decision in the Citizens United case.
“Until there’s a new Supreme Court our hands are tied and our wallets are not sewn up,” Quickmire said Wednesday.
Quickmire said until there’s changes on the court, Connecticut can work toward greater donor disclosure and better access to the filings. She said at the moment the filings, which are automatically emailed to reporters, are a little confusing. She said there’s also no way of knowing what a group stands for or even why they are spending the money on certain races.
Brandi said he had his office create an automatic email alert for reporters this year, with alerts going out every time an outside group files a 24-hour spending notice with his office. He said the groups were filing on the weekends or after hours in order to avoid public scrutiny of their spending.
This year there have been a greater number of independent expenditure groups spending on more than a dozen of the 187 legislative seats. There are four Senate races and 42 House races that are uncontested.