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Super PAC money dominating governor’s race

Outside groups far outpacing candidates in early spending

BY: Paul McMorrow

Outside super PACs are pouring money into television advertising in the Massachusetts governor’s race at a pace that far exceeds that of the candidates who are actually seeking the Corner Office. The disparity in television spending points to an ongoing shift in the balance of campaign spending away from candidates themselves, and toward third-party groups that have the ability to raise and spend money far more quickly than traditional campaigns.

In July and August, super PACs have outspent gubernatorial candidates on television by nearly $400,000. Disclosures filed with the Federal Communications Commission show Democratic gubernatorial hopefuls Steve Grossman and Martha Coakley, and United Independent candidate Evan Falchuk, have combined to spend roughly $554,000 on broadcast advertising. Mass Forward, a super PAC backing Grossman, and Commonwealth Future, a committee largely funded by the Republican Governors Association, have combined to spend roughly $978,000 over the same period.

The spending disparity extends to November’s general election. Super PACs have combined to commit $4.7 million to television advertising in the governor’s race, compared to $1.3 million from the gubernatorial field.

FCC documents show Charlie Baker, the presumptive Republican nominee, has reserved $567,000 in broadcast air time between late September and Election Day. Baker’s initial expenditure is far less than Commonwealth Future is spending to promote Baker’s candidacy, and it’s a fraction of what a Democratic-aligned super PAC, the Mass. Independent Expenditure PAC (MassPAC), has lined up against him.

A recent filing with the state’s Office of Campaign and Political Finance showed that Commonwealth Future made a $1.25 million media buy last week. The super PAC, which has raised all but $20,000 of its campaign cash from the Republican Governors Association, has been running ads in which Beth Lindstrom, a former aide to Mitt Romney, touts Baker’s record as “Governor Bill Weld’s strong right hand.” About $587,000 of the Commonwealth Future ad buy has been committed to television spots that either ran last week or are set to run this week. It’s unclear, from FCC disclosures, when the remaining $663,000 will be spent. The super PAC’s treasurer could not be reached for comment.

MassPAC, a group funded by the Democratic Governors Association, the Massachusetts Teachers Association, and the Service Employees International Union, is spending heavily against Baker, both in the days following September’s primary, and in the run-up to the November election. The group confirmed Thursday it will spend $725,000 airing television ads against Baker in September, and another $2.3 million in the run-up to November’s election.

The gubernatorial ad war remains fluid. Baker’s campaign said it does not comment on media strategy, but it’s unlikely that Baker’s final airtime purchase will remain at $567,000, given the fact that his campaign and the Republican State Committee combined to spend $6.2 million advancing his unsuccessful 2010 gubernatorial campaign. And the would-be Democratic candidates remain focused on September’s primary.

At the same time, the television spending activity provides a useful window into the real-time dynamics of the race, because spending on television advertising is frequently disclosed to the FCC well before it appears in state campaign finance reports.

The television spending activity this summer, and the millions of dollars lining up behind ads in the fall, point to a continued shift in the way political campaigns in Massachusetts are financed.

Super PACs are outside groups, enabled by a 2010 Supreme Court ruling, that may raise and spend unlimited sums of money. The PACs are forbidden from coordinating strategy directly with traditional political campaigns. Instead, they operate as proxies, echoing the talking points of the candidates they’re aligned with, or tearing down political opponents while allowing the beneficiaries of the attacks to float above the fray. Mass Forward, the pro-Grossman PAC, poured $400,000 into a television campaign that echoed a political wedge Grossman had tried to drive between himself and Coakley in April. MassPAC launched an anti-Baker website and Twitter account, Baker Facts, in May.

CommonWealth has previously noted the sharp shift in spending that has followed in super PACs’ wake. Outside groups accounted for just 1 percent of the spending in the 2006 Massachusetts gubernatorial election (the last gubernatorial contest before the Supreme Court enabled unlimited PAC spending). In the 2010 race, the first contest after the Supreme Court’s decision, it rose to 31 percent. The two finalists in last year’s Boston mayoral race combined to spend $5.6 million; super PACs, fueled by cash from organized labor and education reform interests, nearly matched the candidates, spending $4 million.

It’s likely that the finalists in the governor’s race will be even more reliant on spending by outside groups. Baker is lagging behind the fundraising pace he set in 2010 by roughly $900,000. And Baker is, by far, the leader in fundraising among the current crop of candidates. Even after a recent $309,000 infusion of public campaign funds, Coakley is well behind Baker in funds raised, and in cash on hand; Coakley’s rivals for the Democratic nomination, Grossman and Don Berwick, are chasing her in the money race. Whichever candidate emerges from September’s Democratic primary will be running with far less cash in their pocket than Gov. Deval Patrick enjoyed four years ago. It’s a recipe for campaign spending to tilt even further away from the candidates themselves, and toward deep-pocketed outside groups.
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