So-called “dark money” is contributing to the expensive fight for control of the Washington state Senate.
And the script is flipped from the usual one, where Democrats cry foul about secretive groups – like one tied to Karl Rove that tried unsuccessfully to help Dino Rossi defeat Sen. Patty Murray in 2010.
This time, it’s Republicans howling.
They are upset about a group purporting to praise state Sen. Tim Sheldon for supporting liberal causes but whose messages appear calculated to make Sheldon’s fellow conservatives hesitate to vote for him.
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Sheldon, a Potlatch Democrat who has allied himself with Senate Republicans, is key to the GOP’s goal of keeping control of the Senate. Total spending on Senate races neared $12 million Tuesday.
American Values First has reported spending more than $27,000 to “support” Sheldon in the 35th District of Mason, Thurston and Kitsap counties, after a fourth advertisement it mailed Monday and reported Tuesday.
But the organization isn’t disclosing where it gets its money.
Ordinarily, Washington state elections law requires groups that spend money in campaigns to register as political committees and disclose their donors.
Like the Crossroads GPS group tied to former George W. Bush aide Rove, and like an increasing number of shadowy groups across the political spectrum, American Values First says it’s a nonprofit “social-welfare” organization.
While there is no exemption in state law specifically for such groups, the disclosure requirements kick in only if a group receives contributions to be used in campaigns, or if electing candidates is one of the group’s “primary purposes,” staff of the state Public Disclosure Commission said Tuesday.
American Values First has been advocating for voting rights, and points to that kind of advocacy as its primary purpose. And it insists that the money for the ads came from its treasury, not from outside donors.
Republicans say they don’t believe it. After all, they noted, the group is housed in the same Washington, D.C., offices as the Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee and its president is the campaign committee’s executive director.
The group’s defense rests on knowing what it does, Senate Republicans’ attorney Mark Lamb said, “but one can’t determine what their primary purpose is precisely because they don’t report.”
Republicans’ criticism “is all just an attempt to draw attention away from the Party’s obvious discomfort with Senator Sheldon’s clear record on hot-button issues,” Bill Burke, a spokesperson for American Values First, said in a statement. “Their problem is not with what we filed, but with what we said.”
Joining Lamb and Republicans at a Tuesday press conference to denounce the ads, Sheldon said he’s proud of voting to support bipartisan deals for a state budget and for college financial aid for some young immigrants without legal status, but he said the ads exaggerate to make him sound like a “no-borders person.”
Sheldon is running against Democrat Irene Bowling of Bremerton.
Another group that says it doesn’t have to register as a political committee is Working America, a nonprofit labor group that has spent $160,000 in Washington legislative races including Pierce County’s 28th District, eastside King County’s 45th District and South King County’s 30th District.
Renee Ruiz, Washington state program director for Working America, said the group’s primary purpose is “advocating for laws and policies that are important to working families.”
The group also uses its own general treasury funds to pay for its campaigning activities, she said.
The disclosure commission has received complaints about both Working America and American Values First.
American Values First said groups on the right have also avoided registering as political committees – a reference to Koch Industries, which spent a relatively modest amount in Washington this year, $111.52, advocating for Republican candidates and Sheldon.
In 2010, Democrats were outraged about attacks on legislative candidates by another group with ties to Koch Industries, Americans for Prosperity Washington, but the PDC dismissed the case after deciding its spending was below a key threshold.
The Legislature tightened campaign laws and raised penalties after that case and after manipulation that same year by liberal political consulting firm Moxie Media that ended with the consultants paying tens of thousands of dollars in penalties.
Yet some groups are willing to accept fines as a cost of doing business, Sen. Bruce Dammeier, R-Puyallup, said at the news conference Tuesday.
These are “professional political operatives who have decided that concealing their funding sources in trying to support their candidate is more important and will achieve their aims better,” Dammeier said, “and they’re willing to accept the consequences of potentially violating our law as long as it’s not addressed before the election.”