mark pazniokas /
The State Capitol at sunset.
The State Capitol at sunset. mark pazniokas /

Can $1.4 million or so in carefully targeted independent expenditures by business, unions and other interest groups tilt General Assembly races fought by candidates who otherwise compete on a level playing field provided by identical public financing grants?

Lost in the tumult of the presidential race is how everyone from the NRA to Planned Parenthood, from the state’s largest business association to one of its largest unions, is working around the carefully drawn contribution and spending limits of the Citizens’ Election Program to fight for control of Connecticut’s legislature.

After a string of adverse 5-4 decisions by the U.S. Supreme Court, the state’s so-called clean elections reforms now must compete with unlimited independent expenditures by Super PACs and money the state parties and legislative leadership caucuses collect from companies, executives and lobbyists with interests in Hartford.

“These activities are not only a threat to the Citizens Election Program, they are a threat against the underlying principle of democracy. It makes money more important than votes,” said Tom Swan, the executive director of the Connecticut Citizen Action Group, part of the coalition that won passage of campaign finance reform in 2005.

Business groups intent on boosting the influence of Republicans outspent labor allies of Democrats by roughly a 2-1 margin in independent expenditures reported to the State Elections Enforcement Commission through Tuesday, according to an analysis by the CT Mirror.

Unions can blunt that advantage by turning out volunteers for phone banks, door-knocking and election-day transportation, none of which is a reportable electioneering expense. AFSCME, which has 35,000 members, is one of the major unions that forgoes independent expenditures in favor of member-to-member outreach, including publicizing the union’s endorsements. The Connecticut AFL-CIO does the same.

Spending by the Connecticut Business and Industry Association and Grow Connecticut, a Super PAC indirectly funded by major corporations through a Republican PAC in Washington, together topped $800,000, compared to $300,000 by three union-affiliated PACs: Action for Working Families, Labor United for Connecticut and Common Sense Leadership.

Senate Majority Leader Bob Duff, D-Norwalk, said he didn’t think that negative ads, often the province of independent-expenditure groups, would play well this year with Connecticut voters.

“We have a number of groups in the state that are focusing on races using sleazy, negative and mean-spirited types of advertising that I think people of Connecticut are going to reject,” Duff said. “They’re sick and tired of negative campaigns, and they are sick and tired of mudslinging. They want to see who has a vision for the state.”

Labor United, which is financed by affiliates of the Service Employees International Union, had spent $126,000, but it canceled $37,500 in digital ads after a piece linking Republicans to Donald J. Trump’s “attacks on women and families” backfired. One of the targets was Dr. William A. Petit, a House challenger whose wife and daughters were murdered in a home-invasion.

The union forced the resignation of the senior SEIU staffer who had acted as Labor United’s treasurer. A spokeswoman for SEIU, which also contributes to Action for Working Families, said it was unclear what Labor United would do in the campaign’s final week with the $113,365 it was holding.

Duff said he was not referring to Labor United when he mentioned “mean-spirited” ads, because it withdrew the spots.

Trumbull First Selectman Tim Herbst, a Republican who has been sharing digital attack ads with reporters, has yet to report spending money to produce the ads or to place them. TimPAC, his political action committee, only lists fundraising expenses. It had $11,423 in available cash.

He said that ads will go up soon.

Three PACS associated with the well-funded movement to promote charter schools collectively  spent more than $110,000, first defending urban Democrats against primary challenges by charter opponents in August and then by promoting the re-elections of small group of Democratic and Republican incumbents.

One of them, the Campaign for Connecticut’s Future, is barely a week old, founded with a $60,000 contribution from the Real Reform Now Network, also funder of a second PAC, Charters Care. The new PAC’s first expenditure was in support of a single candidate, Sen. Art Linares, R-Westbrook, with $39,665 for mailers, polls and a web presence.

“This is news to me,” Linares said. “I suppose they are supportive of my efforts to improve education.”

In a filing Tuesday night, the PAC reported it also was spending $15,000 on web ads supporting Duff, Sen. Steve Cassano, D-Manchester and Republican Heather Somers in Senate races and three Democratic state representatives: Caroline Simmons of Stamford, Steve Stafstrom and Chris Rosario of Bridgeport.

A third PAC promoting charter schools, Change Course CT, recently spent $14,875 on direct mail supporting Cassano, one of the Democrats targeted for defeat by Grow Connecticut. He also is backed by Charters Care, which is supporting a GOP freshman, Rep. Aundre Bumgardner of New London.

The Real Reform Now Network is dark money: It does not list its donors with the State Elections Enforcement Commission, the Federal Election Commission or the IRS.

“It confuses voters, because they see tons of money coming in, and they don’t necessarily know where it comes from,” said Cheri Quickmire, the executive director of the state chapter of Common Cause. “So much money gets dropped by groups with names that no one recognizes, and it comes at the last minute. It’s a big problem.”

Nearly every candidate in a contested race participates in the voluntary public financing program, which provides general-election grants of $28,150 in House races and $95,710 in Senate races. Grants were approved for 210 House and 58 Senate candidates, for a total of about $10.7 million in public financing for the general election.

The outside spending, while smaller than the public financing, can be significant because it is targeted.

A half-dozen Senate races are getting the heaviest attention, a reflection of the fact that a net gain of four seats would deliver control of the Senate to the GOP for the first time since the 1994 election, when Republican John G. Rowland was elected governor, helping his party win a short-lived 19-17 majority in the Senate. Most of the outside spending on House races is concentrated in fewer than two dozen districts, many with open seats.

Grow Connecticut is backing Republicans for three Democratic Senate seats, opposing Cassano, Sen. Joe Crisco of Woodbridge and Tim Bowles, who is seeking the open seat held by the retiring Sen. Andrew Maynard, D-Stonington. CBIA is targeting four Democrats: Crisco, Bowles, Sen. Dante Bartolomeo of Meriden and Sen. Mae Flexer of Killingly.

In addition to airing radio commercials on WTIC, CBIA bought digital ads that take voters to web pages that favorably compare Republicans Len Suzio to Bartolomeo, George Logan to Crisco, Somers to Bowles, and John French to Flexer. Grow Connecticut’s digital ads are 15-second videos that tie Democrats to Gov. Dannel P. Malloy and urge voters to choose Republicans over Democrats.

CBIA also bought digital ads to support the re-elections of two Democrats with conservative fiscal records: Reps. John K. Hampton of Simsbury and Jonathan Steinberg of Westport.

With a small budget, the League of Conservation Voters is promoting Democrat David A. Lawson of New Milford over Rep. Craig A. Miner, R-Litchfield, for the open 30th Senate District seat long held by the GOP. It gave Miner low grades on its legislative scorecard and is spending $11,161 on postcards opposing Miner and supporting Lawson, Bowles and Bartolomeo.

The National Rifle Association has spent $12,873 promoting Miner, Suzio, French and Linares.

Suzio is the only candidate backed so far by the socially conservative Family Institute of Connecticut, which spent $1,260. Planned Parenthood spent $18,528 promoting four Democratic senators and one Democratic House candidate.

One of the labor PACs, Action for Working Families, spent half of its $138,174 on the successful Democratic primary campaigns of Sens. Ed Gomes and Marilyn Moore of Bridgeport and Josh Elliott, who was ready to challenge House Speaker J. Brendan Sharkey of Hamden. Sharkey declined to run again, and Elliott defeated the town committee-endorsed candidate.

As an offshoot of the Working Families Party, the PAC spends heavily on door-to-door canvassers.

Several of the independent-expenditure groups have more cash to spend. Realtors PAC, which spent $43,000 to support Linares and Sen. Tony Hwang, a Republican (and Realtor) from Fairfield, is sitting on another $250,000 in cash.

PACs controlled by the Democratic and Republican leaders of the House and Senate also report deep reserves after spending $684,000. The dozen PACs — rules written by the legislature for its own campaigns allow each of the four caucuses to operate three PACs — is expected to spend more than $900,000 in the final week before voters go to the polls on Nov. 8.

“I think some will be a response to the misinformation being put out,” said House Majority Leader Joe Aresimowicz, D-Berlin, whose caucus was holding about $370,000 in available cash. “We’ll be communicating on several platforms.”

Republicans need a net gain of 12 seats to win their first majority in the 151-seat House since 1984, when the GOP was boosted by Ronald Reagan’s landslide and voting machines with a party-lever that encouraged straight-ticket voting.

The Connecticut Democratic Party has spent relatively little after running afoul of the State Elections Enforcement Commission by mingling funds raised through state and federal accounts on a get-out-the-vote effort that benefitted Gov. Dannel P. Malloy and down-ballot candidates in 2014. State contractors are prohibited from contributing to state campaigns; they can give to federal campaigns.

A Connecticut Democratic Party ad against Art Linares.
A Connecticut Democratic Party ad against Art Linares.

Without admitting wrongdoing, the party agreed to settle the case with a record payment of $325,000, to be made over time. In its most recent campaign finance filing, the party reported making initial payments totaling $60,600.

It reported spending $10,000 in support of one legislative candidate: Norm Needleman, the Democrat opposing Linares – now the target of a negative mailer and a digital attack ad placed by the party that notes Linares was a Trump delegate and is endorsed by the Family Institute, which makes him “extreme.”

It also spent $1,000 on a digital ad criticizing a vote by Sen. Michael McLachlan, R-Danbury, against a bill requiring subjects of temporary restraining orders to surrender their firearms.

Senate Minority Leader Len Fasano, R-North Haven, noted that the FBI still is examining the same Democratic fundraising practices that led to the record settlement. Until that is resolved, Fasano said, voters should look at the funds “as tainted.”

Independent Expenditures in General Assembly Races
Business is outspending labor by a 2-1 margin
PACs and other Independent expenditure groups Total expenditures as of Nov. 1. Senate Candidates Supported Senate Candidates Opposed House Candidates Supported House Candidates Opposed Main Funders
Connecticut Business and Industry Association $481,388.00 Republicans Len Suzio, George Logan, Heather Somers, John French Democrats Dante Bartolomeo, Joe Crisco, Tim Bowles, Mae Flexer Republicans Kathleen McCarty, Aundre Bumgardner, Kevin Skulczyck, Scott Storms, Brian Ohler, Nicole Klarides-Ditria, Charles Ferraro, Andrew Falvey, Democrats John K. Hampton, Jonathan Steinberg Democrats Sharon Palmer, Joe de la Cruz, Tim Curtis, Theresa Conroy Business Members
Grow Connecticut $328,946.00 Republicans Lorraine Marchetti, George Logan, Heather Somers Democrats Steve Cassano, Joe Crisco, Tim Bowles Republicans William Petit, Holly H. Cheeseman, Aundre Bumgardner, Kevin Skulczyck, Scott Storms, Brian Ohler, Todd Schaller, Steven R. Giacomi, Craig Fishbein, Nicole Klarides-Ditria. Democrats Betty Boukus, Beth Hogan, Joe de la Cruz, Tracey Hanson, Tim Curtis, William Riiska, Michelle Cook, Jeff Berger, Patrick Reynolds, Theresa Conroy Republican State Leadership Committee (a Washington DC Super PAC)
Action for Working Families $138,174.00 Democrats Tim Bowles, Ryan Henowitz, Ed Gomes, Marilyn Moore Democrats Betty Boukus, Christine Conley, Joe de la Cruz, Mary Jane Lundgren, Laura Bartok, Josh Elliott Unions
Common Sense Leadership $97,754.00 Democrats Steve Cassano, Dante Bartolomeo, Mae Flexer ($42,500) Democrats Joe Aresimowicz, Derek Slap, Christine Randall, Caroline Simmons, ($38,000) Unions, plus law firm of Koskoff, Koskoff & Bieder
Labor United for Connecticut —Originally reported $126,692 in expenditures, then canceled digital ad buys after criticism. Actual spending for and against listed candidates unclear. $88,635.00 Democrat Tim Bowles, Mae Flexer Republican Heather Somers Democrats Saud Anwar, Betty Boukus, Joshua Schulman, Sharon Palmer, Christine Conley, Joe de la Cruz, Susan Eastwood, Tim Curtis, Laura Bartok, Liz Linehan, Eva Bermudez Zimmerman, Sean P. Ronan, Russell Morin. Republicans Tom Delnicki, Kathleen McCarty, John F. Scott, Aundre Bumgardner, Sam Belsito, Scott Storms, Cara Pavalock, Andrew Falvey, Mitch Bolinsky, Charles Ferraro, Mike J. Hurley.(Digital ads placed, then canceled.) Unions, primarily affiliates of Service Employees International Union
Realtors PAC $78,364.00 Republicans Art Linares, Tony Hwang ($43,000 spent on them) Realtors
Campaign for Connecticut’s Future $54,665.00 Republicans Art Linares, Heather Somers, Democrats Bob Duff, Steve Cassano Democrats Caroline Simmons, Steve Stafstrom, Chris Rosario Real Reform Now Network (promotes charter schools)
Charters Care $39,115.00 Democrat Steve Cassano Democratic Charlie L. Stallworth, Terry Adams, Republican Aundre Bumgardner Real Reform Now Network (promotes charter schools)
Change Course CT $36,505.00 Democrat Steve Cassano Democrats Charlie L. Stallworth, Chris Soto. Education Reform Now Advocacy (promotes charter schools.)
Planned Parenthood Votes! $18,528.00 Democrats Terry Gerratana, Marilyn Moore, Dante Bartolomeo Democrat Liz Linehan National Planned Parenthood
NRA $12,873.00 Republicans Len Suzio, John French, Craig Miner, Art Linares NRA members
Connecticut League of Conservation Voters $11,161.00 Democrats Tim Bowles, Dante Bartolomeo, David Lawson. Republican Craig Miner
Campaign finance reports, State Elections Enforcement Commission

Mark is the Capitol Bureau Chief and a co-founder of CT Mirror. He is a frequent contributor to WNPR, a former state politics writer for The Hartford Courant and Journal Inquirer, and contributor for The New York Times.

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