Who Paid for $4 Million Campaign Onslaught?
For a decade, the Michigan Chamber of Commerce was the state’s No. 1 spender on state supreme court elections, but in 2010, its name did not appear on a single TV ad or campaign mailing.
In a June 2011 report, the Michigan Campaign Finance Network (MCFN) noted that the Michigan Chamber gave nearly $5.4 million to a national political action committee, operated by the national Republican Governors Association. After forwarding the Michigan Chamber money to campaigns across the country, the Republican Governors Association transferred $8.4 million to its Michigan committee, which in turn sent $3 million to Texas, for the reelection campaign of Governor Rick Perry. In the end, about $5.2 million from these labyrinthine transactions was routed to the Michigan Republican Party.
That amount closely matched the Michigan Chamber’s original check to the Republican Governors Association. And it closely approximated the $4.8 million that MCFN concluded the state GOP spent on contributions and independent electioneering in the 2010 Michigan Supreme Court election.
Because of Michigan’s opaque disclosure laws, which effectively make TV ad spending off limits to any transparency, it is impossible to confirm that Chamber money financed the state Republican campaign. Likewise, it is impossible to identify who ultimately bankrolled the state Democratic Party’s TV ad blitz, estimated at $1.5 million to $2.5 million, or the $800,000–$1.2 million spent on TV by the Law Enforcement Alliance of America, a group with ties to the National Rifle Association.
What all this money purchased is clearer: some of the 2010 campaign’s most relentlessly negative ads.
Michigan was a national leader in three areas in 2009-10: total campaign spending, total TV spending, and number of negative ads aired. According to TNS Media Intelligence/CMAG estimates, the TV ads aired by the three non-candidate groups totaled nearly $4.3 million, compared with a total of less than $900,000 in ads by the four candidates on the ballot.
The onslaught of negative ads began in the summer of 2010, when the Democratic Party launched several internet video ads against Robert Young, who is now the state’s chief justice. Seeking to leverage public anger over the disastrous BP-Horizon oil spill, the ads called Young a “puppet for the oil and gas industry” and said he was a “[f]riend to Big Oil . . . not to Michigan Citizens.”
Michigan Democrats followed up with a searing barrage of negative hits on Justice Young, claiming that he “gutted the Michigan Consumer Protection Act” and “ruled that Michigan citizens can’t protect the environment,” and even going so far as to claim that Justice Young said it’s “not his job” to be a “fair and just” judge.
The Democrats’ anti-Young campaign reached rock-bottom, however, when they ran an ad that said Young “used the word ‘Slut!’ and ‘The “N” Word!’ in deliberations with other justices” and urged voters to call Young and “tell him we don’t need a racist or a sexist on the Michigan Supreme Court.”
Michigan Republicans responded to the Democrats’ attacks with a series of positive ads touting the experience of Young and Republican Mary Beth Kelly, arguing that Young and Kelly would be tough on crime. But outside groups supporting the Republican candidates did not stick to the high road. The Law Enforcement Alliance of America joined the fray, contributing an ad that suggested Democratic challenger Denise Langford Morris was “soft on crime for” three evidently disfavored groups: “rappers, lawyers, and child pornographers.”
The election of two Republican justices, incumbent Young and newcomer Mary Beth Kelly, tipped the court’s balance, but the Republicans’ 4-3 majority remains narrow—making future high-cost elections a virtual certainty in Michigan.