Big Money Invades Small Legislative Districts

David Robinson, 48, calls the outside groups flooding the campaign with ads and mailers attacking him and his opponent a
Photo by David Harrison, Stateline
David Robinson, 48, calls the outside groups flooding the campaign with ads and mailers attacking him and his opponent a "distraction."

COLUMBUS, Ohio — For decades, candidates for the state legislature in Ohio's 21st House district have walked the streets of northern Columbus all through October, crunching dead leaves and waiting for voters to answer the doorbell. This year, Democrat David Robinson and Republican Michael Duffey have each knocked on more than 10,000 doors, armed with a grin and a stack of leaflets.

But this year, such old fashioned retail politics are being supplanted by outside money swamping the district with television ads and campaign mailers. A Republican Party-sponsored ad looping endlessly on television calls Robinson a carpetbagger. A group known as the Campaign for a Moderate Majority, affiliated with four large labor unions, has sent a series of mailers to voters, one of which takes Duffey to task for having attended the University of Michigan, something that it hopes will be viewed as high treason in Columbus, home of the Ohio State Buckeyes. The state Democrats have spent roughly $250,000 and the Republicans roughly $125,000 since June with more spending to come in the closing days of the campaign. Outside groups are likely to spend considerably more.

At stake is control of the Ohio House of Representatives, a bigger prize in 2011 than in recent years. Next year the Ohio legislature will redraw district lines for all of the state's legislative and congressional districts. The party in control of the two legislative chambers — along with the governor — will have a disproportionate influence on the new district lines and on Ohio politics for the next decade. Since Ohio may well lose two seats in Congress because of stagnant population growth, whoever creates the district maps is likely to determine which party loses those seats.

The Democrats control the Ohio House right now, but only by four seats, so close races like the one in the 21st have become the focus of state and national attention. If Republicans can take over the Ohio House, keep the Senate and win the governorship — a distinct possibility — redistricting the state will be their game to play. That's why the contest between Robinson and Duffey is one of the most closely watched legislative elections in the country this year, and why outside groups have been lavishing attention and money on the contest.

Duffey: Michael Duffey, 32, has taken a resigned attitude to the negative ads:
Photo by David Harrison, Stateline
Michael Duffey, 32, has taken a resigned attitude to the negative ads: "You have to laugh at it," he says.

"I'm kind of surprised that that much is being put into it," says Kevin Bacon, a Republican who currently represents the 21 st but who is running for the state Senate this year. "I've never seen an election where the truth is being slaughtered more than in this race."

Millions from somewhere

Last January, in the Citizens United case, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that non-party groups such as unions or corporations can spend as much money as they want in legislative campaigns, as long as they don't coordinate their messages with the candidates. What this has meant is that Robinson and Duffey have grown accustomed to seeing a parade of TV and radio ads attacking them or their opponent, the origin of which they cannot determine. They have little choice but to try to ignore the ads and all the money sloshing around the race. "I've had to explain many times that this was completely independent of my campaign," says Robinson, a 48-year-old vice president for a manufacturing company. "It's not my style. I wish it didn't exist, quite frankly."

Duffey is also resigned. "When this stuff first started I was freaking out, but then you have to laugh at it," says the 32-year-old Republican, who recently quit his job with a public relations company to campaign full-time. "They're investing in one particular vote on redistricting. It's like 'Lord of the Rings.' One vote to rule them all."

The candidates themselves have built up much more modest campaign funds. Robinson has raised about $81,000 since June, while Duffey has gathered around $53,000. Most of their spending has been for traditional items such as staff salaries, office supplies, yard signs and food for volunteers. The real war chests in this race are being amassed at the state and national level. But because laws requiring disclosure have largely been invalidated, nobody can be sure just how much money that involves.

National groups have been pouring money into once-ignored state legislative districts to tip redistricting one way or another. The Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee in Washington has said it plans to raise $20 million to influence control of legislative chambers in key states. The Republican State Leadership Committee says it will raise $30 million.

Many of the battleground districts are in Great Lakes states such as Ohio, Michigan, Illinois, Pennsylvania and New York. All of them stand to lose congressional representation and all have legislative chambers that are closely divided.

These national groups say they rarely give directly to candidates, preferring to funnel their money to state party organizations or to set up independent expenditures. "At the state level you'll find less sophisticated campaigns," says Chris Jandowski of the RSLC. "So we don't get in the process of making individual contributions too often."

None of the money from the RSLC or the DLCC has shown up in Ohio's 21st yet, but both groups have sent out mailers in the neighboring district, the 20th, scene of another closely fought race. Matt Carle, the Republican challenger in that race, says he's received about a dozen pieces of mail from the DLCC attacking him. He knows the RSLC has sent out its own mailings but he hasn't seen them. A new group called Our Future Ohio has also started running ads on television accusing Carle of wanting to close schools. It's unclear who is funding the group.

Candidates lose control

"I have no idea how much positive mail has gone out on my behalf. I also have no idea how much negative mail has been sent on my opponent," Carle says. "You really don't have much control about what's said on your behalf."

"The expense will be considerable but we think it's what's needed in these races," says Jandowski. "It's starting to mirror what's been happening on the federal level the last 10 years. People are starting to see that there's a lot at stake in state policy and state legislatures."

You won't find any information about the RSLC and the DLCC in Ohio's campaign finance records . Ohio does not require independent expenditure groups to register with the state, making state laws even looser than the federal laws have been since the Citizens United decision. So nobody will ever know for sure just how much the campaigns in the 20th and 21st districts are costing. But the candidates and their supporters believe that if the independent expenditures were counted, the number might be well over $1 million in each.

That's too much for many voters.

"It's just in your face," says Valerie Edwards, who grew up and still lives in Worthington, a small town in the heart of the 21st. "People are really tired. I'm tired of all the negative stuff."

Brandy Liba, a longtime Columbus resident, says she receives four or five campaign phone calls a day this year, more than during the presidential election of 2008.

"Thank God for Caller ID," she says. "Can we just go vote already?"


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