With control of the Washington state Senate up for grabs, millions of dollars are pouring into key legislative races around the state. One race on Seattle’s Eastside has attracted more cash than any other: Republican state Senator Andy Hill versus Democratic challenger Matt Isenhower.
Their campaigns, their political parties and outside interests have pumped $2.4 million into the contest for the 45th legislative district. The district cuts an arc through Kirkland, Woodinville and Sammamish on Seattle’s Eastside.
It works out to $28 for every registered voter in the district to date, with last-minute donations continuing to roll in. Washington Secretary of State Kim Wyman has forecast voter turnout in this year’s midterm elections at just 62 percent, which means political interests have paid $45 for every expected vote for state senator in the district.
“It’s a horrendous amount of money,” said Kirkland voter and small-business owner Dave Nakanishi. “Thirty dollars per head to sway each voter’s vote is just a chunk of money that could be better spent.”
That political spending goes mostly to advertisements on cable TV and in other formats.
Kirkland voter Steve Meuter said he has not noticed too many TV ads, but his mailbox is flooded with them.
“Oh God, yeah. And they’re thick, shiny cardboard. I just picked up a pile of them. I bet there’s eight or nine of them in there! It’s wasteful,” Meuter said.
Meuter called the amount of money being spent to sway voter’s minds “ridiculous.”
“It’s like they’re all working for special interests, the politicians are. It’s the only way they can get elected, to have these super PACs throw tons of money at them,” he said. “I think we’re in a pretty sorry state of affairs politically.”
Meuter said he didn’t think elected officials would change that system any time soon. “They’ll talk about it until they get in. Then they’re bought off like everybody else.”
Dueling Attack Ads
Meuter said he hates to be so negative. In election season, of course, negativity is hard to avoid, with attack ads — notorious for their half-truths – coming from both left and right.
In the 45th District, cable TV viewers can see ads attacking the Republican incumbent, Andy Hill, as soft on climate change and the “king of the special interests.”
Other ads attack his Democratic challenger, Matt Isenhower, as untrustworthy. To add insult, the ad also mispronounces his name -- the correct pronunciation is the same as President Dwight Eisenhower.
Under Washington law, political ads are required to include who paid for them. In theory, you can tell who’s trying to sway your vote.
During the last four seconds of the ad attacking Hill, tiny letters reveal that it was paid for by the Washington Conservation Voters Action Fund. That group got most of its money from a California billionaire and climate activist named Tom Steyer.
The money trail behind that ad wasn’t too hard to ferret out, thanks to our state’s campaign-finance laws and the Washington Public Disclosure Commission’s website. Campaign watchdogs credit Washington state for having some of the nation’s best campaign-finance transparency.
Even so, funding for the ad attacking Isenhower as being untrustworthy is less straightforward. Finding who paid for it required a bit more of a trip down the rabbit hole.
The attack ad was paid for by the Good Government Leadership Council, a Centralia-based Republican committee that is the biggest spender trying to get Hill re-elected.
Yet there’s a whole series of big donors behind the Good Government Leadership Council. The group gets all its money from a similar-sounding group: the Leadership Council, based in Olympia.
“The Leadership Council funds the Good Government Leadership Council, but they're independent entities, and the work we do is independent from them,” said Stan Shore, head of the GGLC and of Polis Political Services, a consulting firm the GGLC hires to produce television ads.
“The Democrats have a similar setup,” Shore said.
Even farther upstream, the Leadership Council’s biggest donor is the Republican State Leadership Committee in Washington, D.C., which aims to get Republicans elected to state offices nationwide.
I had to go to the Republican State Leadership Committee’s IRS filings to find its funders.
The RSLC’s latest monthly filing reveals a $1.1 million contribution from the "U.S. Chamber of Commerce and Related Entities” and six-figure contributions from a dozen big businesses. Those ranged from tobacco and gambling companies to health care and pharmaceuticals.
According to that IRS filing, almost none of the RSLC’s money came from inside Washington state. Jill Bader with the RSLC said the committee’s donors have no say in how or where their money is spent, nor does the RSLC get to dictate how its contributions are spent by the state-level committees it supports.
Money Usually Wins
“What we’re seeing actually across the country is more money being spent by outside groups to influence the outcome of elections,” said Denise Roth Barber with the Montana-based National Institute on Money in State Politics. The group is better known as followthemoney.org.
Since the U.S. Supreme Court’s Citizens United ruling in 2010, corporations and unions have had the green light to spend as much as they want on political ads. Big money first flowed into presidential and congressional elections; now it’s trickling down to state and local races, according to Barber.
Kirkland voter Sara Wobker said getting the money out of politics is the one political topic she’s passionate about.
“I just feel that there should be a cap,” Wobker said. “Everybody gets the same amount and they can use all the fundraising money for programs and stuff that always is underfunded.”
Every voter I spoke with in Kirkland said the flood of campaign ads won’t affect their opinion.
“They’ll just say what they want you to hear,” said Matthew Young, a Kirkland voter. He said he found it frustrating that groups from outside Washington state were doing so much to influence local politics.
“The research shows that all the negative advertising actually matters, even though people say it does not,” said Barber, of followthemoney.org.
“Typically money does win,” she said. “Candidates who raise the most money win about 85 percent of the time.”
Incumbent candidates who outspend their opponents win 98 percent of the time, according to followthemoney.org’s analysis of state legislative races nationwide in 2009 and 2010.
That means Matt Isenhower has an uphill battle to unseat senator Andy Hill. Hill and his Republican allies have raised about a third more than Isenhower and his Democratic supporters.