Legislative election campaigns in South Jersey have been among the most expensive in state history. But at least the candidates and public have known who was bankrolling million-dollar campaigns.
Recent trends in campaign spending, however, have area candidates and state election regulators wondering whether big-moneyed committees with no public accountability will soon be influencing legislative district races.
As a result of national campaign finance reforms and a federal court case, political action committees that are not held to the same fundraising and disclosure rules that apply to other political committees have begun spending large sums in federal elections.
“What happens at the national level filters down to the state level,” said Jeff Brindle, director of the state Election Law Enforcement Commission.
The so-called super PACs or 527 groups, named after a section of the IRS tax code, do not have to disclose who contributes to them or how much is contributed as long as they don’t advocate how to vote in an election. There are no limits on how much they can raise or spend. They can attack a candidate by name and not file any disclosures as long as they don’t urge the public to vote for or against a candidate.
Brindle and ELEC Chairman Ronald DeFilippis recently called for the state Legislature to pass a law requiring 527 groups in New Jersey to disclose their funding sources. A Senate bill has been proposed but has not reached the full house.
The ELEC officials said they fear shadow PACs will run negative ads in the legislative elections, and the public will have no idea who is funding the attacks. Others think independent spending could become a big issue in the 2013 gubernatorial election.
“The voters will be left in the dark. There will be no transparency in terms of who backs them financially, who they support or oppose, or how much money they spend doing it,” Brindle said. “And that’s a loss for democracy.”
Brindle and state Senate candidates in the 1st and 2nd Districts in Atlantic, Cape May, and Cumberland counties said they haven’t seen evidence of 527 activities yet. But they said it is still early in the campaign, and they are concerned about having to fight an unidentified opponent with potentially unlimited resources.
Huge amounts are already spent just by the candidates in this region. ELEC issued a report last week showing that legislative elections in only one other district have been more expensive during the past decade than legislative campaigns in the 1st and 2nd Districts.
Independent groups were active in last year’s congressional election on behalf of U.S. Rep. Jon Runyan, R-3rd. A group called the American Future Fund spent more than $175,000 on advertising to support the Republican.
A national group opposed to gay marriage, Common Sense America, purchased radio ads to attack Assemblyman Nelson Albano, D-Cape May, Cumberland, Atlantic, in the 2007 state Assembly race.
“I predict they will do something like that in this election,” said Sen. Jeff Van Drew, Albano’s running mate.
His Republican challenger, David DeWeese, said he is also worried that outside groups could influence the election based on narrow interests. He said his campaign will not become involved with any super PACs.
But Chris Russell, spokesman for 2nd District Republican Senate candidate Vincent Polistina, said candidates have no control when an independent group decides to start buying advertising.
“The first time you hear about it is when ads show up on TV or in your mailbox,” Russell said.
Several independent groups have attracted attention at the state level in New Jersey.
Last year, a PAC called Reform Jersey Now sprung up in support of Republican Gov. Chris Christie. Democrats attacked the group relentlessly for failing to identify its contributors, saying special interests could secretly funnel money to help the governor. Meanwhile, they would not run afoul of the state pay-to-play law that would ban them from receiving state contracts.
The PAC eventually disclosed its contributors and went out of business.
Then Democratic supporters founded the anti-Christie One New Jersey group, which hasn’t disclosed its contributors. Group spokesman Joshua Henne said last week that One New Jersey does not plan to get involved in this year’s legislative elections.
Last week, a new pro-Christie group, the Committee for Our Children's Future, launched a $1.5 million ad campaign in support of the governor.
Brindle said the 2002 McCain-Feingold campaign finance reform ended unlimited contributions to the national parties. That change resulted in more money going to independent groups that were not covered by the law.
Then the U.S. Supreme Court ruled against limits on independent corporate campaign expenditures.
Van Drew said he thinks the court erred in how it interpreted free speech because the unlimited and undisclosed spending creates unfairness in elections.
Sen. Jim Whelan, D-Atlantic, said groups that try to influence elections should be accountable for what they say.
“It’s a concern, not just about the dollars but about accountability,” he said. “The candidate (benefiting from the ads) has a level of deniability. They can say, ‘It’s not me doing the attacking.’”
Contact John Froonjian: