Yesterday, the Republican House Caucus released a web site supposedly ridiculing Democratic House candidates. The text reads, “Here are the candidates of the North Carolina Democratic House Caucus hoping to get elected to enact a far-left radical agenda.” That language probably works for the paranoid GOP base but it’s not believable to most voters.
Beneath the words are photos, most of them unflattering, of 55 Democrats running for state house seats. Beneath each photo is a clickable link that reads “Learn More!” Most of the links are circular, sending you back to the same page. Some, though, link to individual web pages that criticize the candidates even more and have an additional link that leads to an entire opposition research book.
These pages are not made for people like you and me. They’re meant for third party organizations that will serve as the attack arm of the GOP House Caucus. They are legally circumventing campaign finance laws that are supposed to prevent coordination between campaigns and third-party, independent expenditure organizations. It’s certainly legal, but it’s another example of the folly of Citizens’ United and our whole campaign system.
The Republican House Caucus, which is officially part of the North Carolina Republican Party, can legally coordinate with political campaigns. However, they are restricted in the type of communication and information they can share with independent expenditure operations. However, if they make the information public, they aren’t illegally coordinating.
We’ve seen similar stunts for years. Most campaign websites now have high-quality photos or video of candidates that can be downloaded by anybody. That saves the third-party organization the problem of getting quality video or photos of candidates they want to support. On the other hand, it also gives material for opponents who want to attack them.
All of it leads to a bigger problem. Candidates are losing control of their message and their campaigns. Well-funded third-party operations swamp the amount of money spent by candidates. And these organizations generally produce lower-quality, less nuanced ads that are quite often tone deaf. Despite what campaign professionals getting rich off of third-party organizations say, candidates run better campaigns, spending their money more wisely and addressing the issues that affect the voters better.
In North Carolina, we saw it in the Tillis-Hagan race in 2014. Both campaigns ran good operations, staying on message and trying to control the dynamic of the campaign. In contrast, the third-party organizations spent tens of millions of dollars in ads that were over-the-top or missed their target altogether. On the Democratic side, the third-parties wasted their money running against the Koch brothers, a couple of billionaires most people didn’t know.
Get ready for the onslaught of wasted money in the form of bad ads, misused direct mail and over-the-top rhetoric. Ignore what you can and focus on what matters. In a year like this one, both sides should be spending their money to shape the electorate. On the Democratic side, they should be taking advantage of a highly motivated base to put as many voters into the polls as possible. For Republicans, their only real hope of staving off a wave is to increase turnout to mitigate the impact of the Democratic enthusiasm. Few of these voters will be moved by television ads or assaults on their mailboxes. People at their doors, getting them to vote will make the biggest difference this year.