SHEPHERDSTOWN – Did outside spending in the form of an attack mailer help an Eastern Panhandle Republican win out over his Democratic rival? One local political observer says it might have.
David Hostetter, formerly the director of programs and research at Shepherd University’s Robert Byrd Center for Legislative Studies, pointed to the Berkeley County delegate race between political newcomers Republican Michael Folk and Democrat Donn Marshall, a contest that Folk won by a 74-vote margin.
In that race, Marshall was targeted in a late attack mailer from the Eastern Panhandle Freedom Fund that aimed to have voters believe he backed an increase in DMV fees despite the fact that he wasn’t serving in the Legislature last year – and that the higher DMV fees themselves were rejected by Democratic Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin.
“There is surely no measure of whether Folk won because of that flier,” Hostetter said. “There are so many other factors that it is hard to say whether it was the deciding one. It clearly didn’t help Elliot Simon,” who lost a race for a seat in the House of Delegates in Jefferson County to Democrat Stephen Skinner.
“Clearly, a lot of that spending didn’t help Republican candidates nationwide,” Hostetter said.
This was the first presidential election since since the U.S. Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision, which stymied efforts to maintain federal campaign finance reforms.
That 5-4 decision, reached in early 2010, held that the government was prohibited from restricting political expenditures by corporations and unions.
Hostetter said that his biggest concerns about the court’s ruling are the erosion of civil discourse and the injection of false claims into political debates.
“My concern is that the consequence, intended or not, is that Citizens United is hardening prejudices based on false or misleading information such as that sent out on the fliers [from the Eastern Panhandle Freedom Fund],” Hostetter said. “People are using the ability to raise money, a lot of it from outside, to inject into the campaign issues that are fictional. The question is: What are we going to do about that?”
Hostetter worked with activists affiliated with the Occupy Martinsburg movement to push the Jefferson County Commission to pass a resolution condemning Citizens United, which they did in a unanimous vote in January.
“Do we see the possibility, under Obama, of a Supreme Court that tilts back in a direction that might repeal or circumscribe Citizens United?” he said. “And what do you do at the state and local level when this happens?”
Hostetter said he has been particularly concerned that so-called social welfare groups can raise and spend unlimited funds on issue ads without disclosing their donors. Jefferson County races did not see any spending by social welfare groups this year, but the groups did factor in races throughout the nation.
“I think it does degrade the discourse,” Hostetter said. “If we didn’t have Citizens United we would know who was giving money and advertising would be accountable to the campaigns, which have to be more judicious in the kind of claims they make. With these PACs on the other hand, they can say anything and then the candidates can say, ‘I didn’t know anything about it.’ And they may not.
“How can you keep a politician accountable if you don’t know who is spending money [on their behalf]? The way Citizens United has been construed, it is a dodge. It is a way for people to be able to pour money in to influence an election and not even be seen.”
Hostetter said that, on the national scene, many political commentators were shocked that record levels of spending did not have a greater effect on the outcomes of more races. “There is a case to be made that people mostly weren’t duped, weren’t misled,” he said, adding he suspects one approach to dealing with the impact of Citizens United is to increase the transparency of donations to political action committees, social welfare groups and candidates.
“The general rule should always be that sunshine is the best disinfectant,” Hostetter said. “If we keep the disclosures open, and we don’t allow this anonymous stuff, that will help. Everyone should be on the record for all their donations, and that should be readily available information.”