TRENTON – With news from the state’s Election Law Enforcement Commission Thursday that spending on statewide campaigns is shattering previous records, it’s unsurprising much of the funding centers on some of the state’s most competitive districts.
Battleground Legislative District 14 is the state’s third most expensive race, according to ELEC. Candidates raised $2,656,583 and spent $2,479,159 in the hotly contested district.
The newly released figures do not account for the hundreds of thousands of dollars in campaign spending from outside independent expenditures in the district, which could reach as high as $1 million in LD 14, state campaign finance officials said.
The new ELEC figures account for campaign spending through Oct. 25. The report indicated independent spending across the state is already more than twice its previous all-time high, according to ELEC.
But it’s in LD 14 where state officials embarked on an effort in the not so distant past to reform the way elections were funded and combat special interest.
The district was one of three in the state in 2007 that took part in the Clean Elections Pilot Program. The program’s stated missions were, among other things, to “end the undue influence of special interest money,” level the playing field for candidates and improve “the unfavorable opinion of the political process” in the eyes of the public, according to a 2008 ELEC report on the program.
Sen. Linda Greenstein, who was running that year for a seat in the General Assembly, received the same $526,375 disbursement from the state that her running mates and their opponents were allocated in LD 14. The district was considered the “competitive” district under the pilot program and eligible candidates were allocated the maximum average amount spent by all candidates for Senate and Assembly in the district’s two prior elections.
Registered voters in the state could donate $500 or less to candidates collecting seed money until a candidate maxed out at $10,000. All seed money contributions from registered voters over $300 had to include the name, address and employer information of the donor. A candidate became certified in the program by receiving $4,000 in qualifying contributions from at least 400 people by a September deadline, according to the ELEC report.
The basic idea was donations were supposed to be small.
LD 14 candidates received the maximum $526,375 grant amount disbursement from the state and the candidates ultimately spent about $1.6 million on each of their campaigns in 2007.
However, there were two exceptions that year in LD 14 and both had to do with the infusion of special interest money in the races.
Greenstein ultimately received an extra $100,000 in rescue funds after her campaign reported to ELEC that her opponents spent about $165,000 on robocalls and radio ads.
Conservative group Common Sense America financed the robocalls and attack ads. The tax-exempt nonprofit group entered the race much like the independent expenditures have done during this election cycle. (The other exception to the funding scheme in LD 14 in 2007 was Assemblyman Wayne DeAngelo’s campaign, which received a little more than $14,000 in rescue funding for similar reasons.)
Despite independent expenditures being present in the 2007 race, the tone and influence was a bit different compared to today, according to Greenstein.
“[Clean Elections] was good because I think it gave the race a kind of respectability,” she said, explaining, for example, that at the time there was a reaction within editorial boards in the state about the group’s involvement with the race.
“When you have a group attacking, if we weren’t clean elections no reporter would have cared about the spending,” Greenstein said. “But because we were clean elections, there was a, ‘Hey, hands off the campaign’ mentality.”
Greenstein explained she got the sense at the time that people didn’t “like the idea of some sort of stealth group coming in” and influencing the race.
“I thought that was good governance,” she said. “I just thought it was a good direction.”
But Clean Elections was expensive.
When discussion continued in 2009 about continuing the program while finding new ways to improve it, the economy was tanking and selling publicly financed campaigns to voters was a tough sell.
Enter Citizens United.
It wasn’t long after the time that enthusiasm for a Clean Elections Program in the state dwindled that the landmark Supreme Court Citizens United ruling was handed down. The ruling, which was released in January 2010, tossed out bans on corporations and unions making independent expenditures and gave them green lights to spend unlimited amounts on political ads and other campaign tools.
And so, in 2013, the campaign landscape in LD 14 looks different than it did when the state first embarked on an effort to undo the influence of outside spending.
“It’s a whole new world in New Jersey politics,” said ELEC’s Joe Donohue.
“We’re at more than twice of what independent expenditures spent in 2009,” he said. “We’ve never seen anything like this.”
Political operatives in the state say the results of historic IE spending in districts across the state likely lead to voter fatigue and over saturation by the outside groups.
“It really does change the discourse of a campaign because it’s changing the messaging that the public responds to,” said one operative, who posed the question, “Does that voter fatigue and saturation affect turnout?”
Others say the inability for campaigns to control the message because of outside funding has been a legitimate concern of candidates and operatives alike.
“No average voter is really going to look at that 4-point font,” one operative said. “Whether we want that message out there or not, we have no control over it.”
And the result of the changes to campaign financing has had a noticeable difference for candidates themselves.
“Look, I may be bruised, but I’m still standing,” said Greenstein’s challenger in this year’s LD 14 Senate race.
“It’s become too personalized and away from a reasonable debate about performance in office,” said Peter Inverso, who held the office years ago and isn’t new to running a campaign.
“I don’t think it’s ever reached the level it’s reached now or that the intensity has ever been as great as it is,” he said.
The GOP challenger has criticized his Democratic opponent on the campaign trail for not denouncing negative attacks he says go way over the line in that they “pray on natural emotions” of voters by distorting his private sector work.
Greenstein, who never denounced the ads and even went as far as to say she believes they’re accurate, may at least agree with her opponent about being opposed to the outside sending’s existence in the first place.
“I didn’t need it and I didn’t want it,” she said. “I said to various people that I really wish this didn’t happen and I was told I wasn’t going to have any say.”
The fact remains the dawn of a new campaign style has already risen in New Jersey and voters need to look no further than the latest ELEC report that indicates previous spending records will be shattered.