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How the new world of campaign finance threatens Arkansas state elections 

All about money, money, money.

click to enlarge ALL SMILES: Tom Cotton and his opponent have both benefited from millions in outside spending image
  • Brian Chilson
  • ALL SMILES: Tom Cotton and his opponent have both benefited from millions in outside spending.

The presence of big money in campaign finance is nothing new. As the saying goes, cash flows toward power as surely as water flows downhill. What's changed in American elections in recent years is the dizzying rise in the level of outside spending — that is, money intended to influence an election but that is not given directly to a candidate.

To circumvent legal limits on the size of the direct campaign donations, wealthy individual donors — think the Koch brothers or Michael Bloomberg — give generously to groups such as super PACs and 501(c)(4) "social welfare" nonprofits. These outside groups then support their favored candidates by spending their vast pools of money on advertising blitzes that are, in theory, entirely separate from the candidates' campaigns themselves. The Center for Responsive Politics (CRP), which tracks such figures, projects that outside groups across the country will spend about $900 million in the 2014 midterms, while the candidates and parties themselves will spend around $2.7 billion. That is, about a quarter of all spending in federal elections this cycle will come from outside groups. The largest have essentially become auxiliary political parties.

In Arkansas's hotly contested U.S. Senate race, spending by outside groups such as Crossroads GPS and Patriot Majority USA is on track to exceed the spending of the Mark Pryor and Tom Cotton campaigns. As of Sept. 30, according to CRP, Pryor had spent over $12 million and Cotton had spent about $8 million; outside ads that aided the Pryor campaign cost around $14.5 million, while spending friendly to Cotton topped $21 million.

The glut of outside money gives a disturbing amount of influence to wealthy donors in big ticket contests like the Pryor/Cotton race, but it potentially poses a graver danger within another set of races: those at the state level. Elections for state office — including governor, attorney general, the legislature, the judiciary, etc. — abide by laws that differ from federal elections regulations. Arkansas has its own statutes concerning campaign finance and reporting, and they have yet to catch up to the new world of outside spending.

Federal watchdog groups like CRP often criticize the role of "dark money" in federal elections, which refers to spending by 501(c)(4)s, such as Americans for Prosperity. Unlike super PACs, such nonprofits don't have to disclose their donors. But in Arkansas's state-level races there's an additional layer of opacity: Not only can outside groups keep their donors secret, they often don't have to disclose their spending, either.

Arkansas does require reporting of "independent expenditures" made by outside groups — but if an ad doesn't explicitly tell the public to vote for or against a candidate, it's not considered an independent expenditure. For example, an outside ad can smear a candidate as being "soft on violent crime," as happened to House District 35 hopeful Clarke Tucker this fall, yet if it never mentions the election itself, the ad is entirely unregulated by the Arkansas Ethics Commission.

In federal races, ads that mention a candidate have to be disclosed to the Federal Election Commission if they take place in the 60 days before a general election. In Arkansas, though, ads are reported to the state only if they expressly advocate for a candidate; others, like the Tucker mailer, fly completely under the radar. That makes it impossible to tell just how much money is being spent on state races in which an outside group gets involved in a big way.

The best example this cycle may be the race for attorney general, in which Republican Leslie Rutledge has received untold support from an organization called the Republican Attorney Generals Association; her opponent, Democrat Nate Steel, has been assisted by ads from a group called the Committee for Justice and Fairness. Rutledge herself was attacked in the GOP primary earlier this by the Judicial Crisis Network, a 501(c)(4) organization that supported her opponent. But until the legislature takes steps to update Arkansas law to account for the new realities of outside spending, it's impossible to know exactly how much cash those groups and others are spending to influence our elections.

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