Outside groups are pouring millions of dollars into the bitterly contested campaign for Kansas governor this year, a flood of mostly untraceable cash apparently unique in the state’s history.
By the last week in September, outsiders will have spent at least $2.8 million just on “issue” ads in the race between incumbent Republican Gov. Sam Brownback and Democrat Paul Davis. That’s roughly twice what the two candidates’ campaigns spent for all of their expenses through mid-July.
And if the race remains close, as almost everyone expects, that outside spending is certain to grow. By Election Day, outside spending in the Kansas governor’s race could reach $5 million or more, experts said.
“By the end of this election,” predicted Washburn University political science professor Bob Beatty, “there will be more TV ads run by outside groups than (by such groups in) all other Kansas gubernatorial races (in history) combined.”
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Most of that spending is anonymous — and perfectly legal.
But it means the majority of the political messages Kansans see and hear in the next eight weeks will be promoted by sources voters cannot know.
The cash for ads comes from nonprofit groups known by their 501(c)(4)s federal tax status. They’re the “social welfare” companies able to keep their donors secret.
They represent a skyward trend in secret spending in Kansas that worries campaign finance watchdog groups.
“We are seeing more spending by non-disclosing groups … than we’ve ever seen,” said Robert Maguire, an analyst with the Center for Responsive Politics. That comes, he said, “despite the Supreme Court overwhelmingly agreeing that disclosure is a valuable part of the election process — letting voters know who is speaking to them.”
The escalating third-party air war reflects the perceived stakes in the November election in Kansas. Brownback’s aggressive push for major tax cuts is a template for other Republicans in other states and 2016 presidential candidates, making the state a must-win for some in the GOP.
Yet the governor, once the prohibitive favorite, has trailed in recent polls.
The biggest outside spender in Kansas to date — $1.7 million in TV and radio ads — is a social welfare nonprofit called the Alliance for Freedom.
Alliance ads praise Brownback for his actions on the environment and education, but don’t expressly support his re-election.
Tax returns and Federal Communications Commission records show the Virginia-based group is run by Barry Bennett.
Bennett has been connected with conservative Republican campaigns and fundraising for three decades. He has worked extensively with Texas Gov. Rick Perry, a close ally of Brownback’s.
Bennett declined to comment about any of the funding sources for the Alliance for Freedom. He did say the funds did not come from David or Charles Koch, the wealthy industrialists well-known for donating to conservative causes.
Koch Industries is headquartered in Wichita.
But Maguire with the Center for Responsive Politics said the Alliance for Freedom campaign is a small-scale replica of efforts mounted by the Kochs in other states — a series of interlocking nonprofits designed to obscure the sources of funding for political messages.
The record shows Bennett is familiar with Koch interests:
In 2012, a separate nonprofit company called the Founding Fund gave $250,000 to Bennett’s Alliance for Freedom. The Founding Fund, whose donors are secret, was organized in part by a former lobbyist who worked with Koch.
The Founding Fund’s tax return says the group was once managed by a company called Clover Inc. Clover’s address, according to Virginia records, is the same as Barry Bennett’s company, BKM Strategies.
In 1996, Bennett served as director of a nonprofit group called the Coalition for Our Children’s Future. The group bought issue ads in 11 races that year, all targeting Democrats.
Democratic investigators in the U.S. Senate later suspected — but could not prove — that the Kochs, through a trust, gave the Coalition and Bennett at least $700,000 for those ads.
The Senate investigators also claimed that in 1996 the Kochs secretly funded more than $400,000 in ads in the Kansas U.S. Senate race through nonprofits linked to a different firm, Triad Management. The candidates in that race were Jill Docking, a Democrat, and Republican Sam Brownback.
The Kochs never confirmed or denied payments to Triad or its affiliated nonprofits that year, or to the Coalition.
But it’s clear Koch interests support Brownback. Records at the Center for Responsive Politics show those interests have given $127,050 to Brownback’s Senate campaigns, more than any other source.
It’s also clear Koch interests are heavily involved in the 2014 election cycle through nonprofit social welfare groups. The Center for Public Integrity said this week that six nonprofits tied to the Kochs have purchased almost 44,000 ads this Senate election cycle.
A spokeswoman for Koch Industries did not respond to emailed requests for comment.
Secret outside spending in the governor’s race isn’t limited to conservatives.
A nonprofit social welfare group called the Kansas Values Institute has spent almost $480,000 on broadcast ads in the state. The group’s ads criticize Brownback’s education and budget record.
KVI was founded three years ago by a group that included allies of former Kansas Gov. Kathleen Sebelius, a Democrat. Its current president is Dan Watkins, a Lawrence attorney active in Democratic politics. Some moderate Republicans are also involved with the group.
Director Ryan Wright declined to identify the donors to KVI, although the Kansas National Education Association’s political action committee contributed $120,000.
But Wright said KVI’s work is different from the Alliance for Freedom’s.
“KVI has been around, and we will be around,” he said. “The Alliance for Freedom … spends millions of dollars and then goes away. That’s not us.”
Other outside media buyers in the governor’s race include the Republican Governors Association, Americans for Prosperity and Road Map Solutions on the right and MoveOn.org on the left.
All 501(c)(4)s must limit their political activities or risk losing their federal tax-exempt status. Further, under Kansas law, social welfare nonprofits can only address issues, not candidates, if they want to keep their donors secret.
But Kansas law allows 501(c)(4) issue campaigns to communicate and coordinate in certain circumstances with state candidates, a practice forbidden for federal candidates.
Spokesmen for both Brownback and Davis said they were unaware of any ad coordination with social welfare nonprofits advertising in the state.
Additional outside groups are expected to buy ads in the state in the next eight weeks. They’re also expected to provide mailers, phone banks, social media outreach and other tools of contemporary politics.
Most of that money will be secret, too.
The Center for Responsive Politics thinks $50 million in so-called “dark money” has already been spent in races across the nation, far ahead of the pace in any other election year.
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