September 12, 2004 in City

‘Vicious cycle’ gets earlier start

By The Spokesman-Review

In Washington state politics, the only thing more certain than death and taxes is a late campaign attack by groups trying to boost the chances of one candidate by smacking around another.

This year, there are several conspicuous examples, as a shadowy committee tries to scuttle Deborah Senn’s attorney general chances by questioning her work in the 1990s as insurance commissioner and the building industry tries to blame the state’s new but already unpopular primary system on Christine Gregoire, a Democratic candidate for governor.

There’s also a mailer from Washington Democrats that suggests GOP gubernatorial candidate Dino Rossi is, well, a space cadet.

“Being negative works. That’s not a new revelation,” said Derek Willis, who tracks campaign spending for the Center for Public Integrity in Washington, D.C. “It shouldn’t be a surprise that people turn to it, especially late in the campaign.”

Campaign experts say the attacks are no worse than in years past. In fact, argues Cathy Allen, of Seattle-based Campaign Connections, they are comparatively mild so far.

“The tenor of the negativity has gotten a little more tame,” said Allen, who works mainly for Democratic campaigns. No one is raising questions about a candidate’s medical history or dredging up details from a divorce, she noted.

Even the black-and-white pictures of Senn in the television commercials sponsored by a group calling itself Voters Education Committee could be worse, Allen added.

“This is nothing. Wait’ll you see the general,” she predicted.

After voters approved new campaign finance limits in 1992, the source of most attacks shifted, from opposing candidates to groups that may have stakes in the outcome of races but operate independent of candidates or their political parties. Before that, when individuals, businesses or unions could give unlimited amounts to a candidate for state office, the decision to “go negative” was usually made by candidates or their campaign staffs.

Now, however, individuals or groups unhappy with a candidate are more likely to contribute to independent campaigns, which have no contribution limits until three weeks before the general election. For these independent expenditure committees, the main requirement is that they promptly report the source of the money.

Federal law also requires independent groups, known as 527 committees, to report their donors, although not as promptly as the state.

Independent expenditure committees are responsible for separate television blitzes against Senn and Gregoire. The Voters Education Committee initially withheld its list of donors, arguing the anti-Senn ads were “educational” not political, because they focus on the time she spent as the state’s insurance commissioner, not tied to her current bid for attorney general. The group also claimed it was a 527 committee, covered by federal law but not the stricter state reporting requirements.

The state’s Public Disclosure Commission disagreed and late last week the Voters Education Committee agreed to reveal its donors by tonight, in time for voters to know who was behind the barrage and how much was spent. Estimates have put the ad campaign as high as $1 million, which would be more than the four candidates have spent on their own campaigns.

A committee calling itself It’s Time For A Change is financing the ads against Gregoire. Although she’s running for governor, the ads are critical of her work as attorney general when the state lost the legal battle to keep its blanket primary system. That committee, which was set up in late August, gets all of its money from another independent committee, ChangePAC 2004, which was set up in July.

Most of the money to ChangePAC comes from the Building Industry Association of Washington, and both committees list the association’s lobbyist, Elliott Swaney, as their campaign director.

Swaney has practice at setting up independent expenditure committees to spend money against candidates the builders want to defeat. He and Bruce Boram, legislative director of the pro-business group United for Washington and manager of the Voters Education Committee, launched several dozen such groups over the past eight years.

Outside the pattern is an 8-by-14-inch ad mailed to homes last week by the state Democratic Party, criticizing GOP gubernatorial candidate Dino Rossi. The gist of the mailer is that Rossi’s stands on health care and education are so far outside the norm that he’s from outer space, or “Planet Dino.”

It’s the kind of ad that can make Democrats chuckle and Republicans rage – just the reverse of the reaction to a 1998 pre-primary mailer from the state GOP that suggested a legislative candidate in Spokane of being a former CIA hitman.

“I see no increase in any kind of negative campaigning going on,” said Brett Bader, a Bellevue-based political consultant who works mainly on Republican campaigns. “But I see no decrease, either. I think they are earlier, and voters are a little more sophisticated.”

Vicki Rippie, disclosure commission executive director, said she couldn’t judge whether this year’s ads are more or less nasty than in years past. But she also believes the attacks are coming earlier.

“I don’t recollect this degree of activity this early,” Rippie said.

Not long ago, negative campaigns were saved until the last week – sometimes the last weekend – before Election Day, in hopes of swaying the undecided voters before they went to the polls. The later the attack, the less chance that the source of the money could be traced and questions raised about ties to allies of the attacked candidate’s opponent.

“Candidates who stand to benefit can end up being blamed,” Willis, of the Center for Public Integrity, said. “It keeps the backlash to a minimum.”

But absentee voting changed that timetable. Now, more than half the state’s voters receive ballots by mail, some three weeks before Election Day. Some start marking their ballots as soon as they receive them.

To reach those voters, the attacks have to be launched earlier.

“It’s something of a vicious cycle,” Willis said. “If people are making their decisions earlier, we have to get to them with earlier ads, and earlier negative ads.”

It also means earlier debates over the ads. When the PDC first ordered the Voters Education Committee to reveal its donors and the committee balked, KING-TV in Seattle refused to run the ads because the source of funding wasn’t being disclosed.

At last week’s PDC hearing, Senn’s husband and campaign manager, Rudi Bertschi, contended the campaign had ties to the state GOP. That prompted state Republican Chairman Chris Vance to demand an apology from the Senn campaign.

“We have no idea who is financing these ads. We had no prior knowledge that these ads existed or that they were going to be aired,” Vance said. “I call on Deborah Senn to stop her baseless allegations to the contrary.”

Senn has so far not obliged.

The Gregoire ads have also been subjected to some back and forth. Comcast, the cable television system, refused to air them, causing the Gregoire campaign to claim victory over what they termed a “false ad.”

But on Friday, the It’s Time For A Change group made revisions to the ads and resubmitted them to the cable system. When Comcast agreed to broadcast them, the building industry association harrumphed in triumph, saying it merely “word-smithed” a minor change to drop the contention Gregoire “fought against” the primary system.

“Obviously Christine Gregoire does not believe in open political debate protected by the First Amendment,” Tom McCabe, the association’s executive vice president, claimed in a press release.

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