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The funding sources of television ads in the U.S. Senate race between Josh Mandel and Sherrod Brown have grabbed the attention of both campaigns, which each side blasting the other for allowing special interest groups to pump millions of dollars into the race.
The dispute revolves around the concept of "outside spending" – money poured into elections by groups that are not directly tied to a candidate. These groups often are unbound by campaign finance restrictions, and can accept contributions from anonymous donors.
Ohio Democratic Party Chairman Chris Redfern recently highlighted outside money spent to attack Brown. At a July 10 news conference, Redfern claimed that $10.5 million in outside money has been spent against Brown, the Democratic incumbent, often with misleading ads.
The Ohio Republican Party fought back of behalf of Mandel, the Ohio treasurer. Spokeswoman Izzy Santa emailed the following:
"Sherrod Brown and his special interest allies in Washington are plotting to spend over $13 million, with no end in sight."
The feisty exchange prompted PolitiFact Ohio to dig deeper, since outside spending has been an issue in this Senate race.
We note here that the context in which the GOP claim was made was a discussion about money from outside special interest groups and Redfern’s criticism that more than $10.5 million had flowed into the state on behalf of Mandel.
Justin Barasky, a spokesman for Brown’s campaign, said the GOP’s comparison included more than $10 million worth of ad buys purchased by Brown’s campaign and the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, both of which must publicly report their donors and do not qualify as "outside spending."
So before further analyzing the Ohio GOP’s claim, we should provide a more clear definition of outside spending.
Richard Briffault, a law professor at Columbia Law School professor who specializes in campaign finance, said there are two schools of thought.
"Some people divide the campaign finance world into parts – candidate spending and everything else (‘outside spending’)," Briffault wrote in an e-mail. "Other people divide the campaign finance world into three parts – campaign spending, party spending in support of that party’s candidates, and spending by all other groups (‘outside spending’).
"I put myself in the second group," Briffault continued. "Political parties are officially a part of the electoral process. Legislatures are organized by party, candidates are nominated by political parties and they run on party lines… in addition, federal campaign finance law permits party campaign committees to officially coordinate a certain amount of spending with candidates."
To sum up, Briffault’s definition of outside spending would exclude candidate committees and party campaign committees, which must disclose their donors. Organizations such as super PACs and unions, however, would be considered outside spending. Those groups are not covered by the same regulations and do not face the same requirements for disclosure.
With that established, let’s move back to the Ohio GOP’s claim.
We asked Santa for evidence, and she provided the following list of expenditures or planned expenditures: $5.9 million by Brown’s campaign; $5.1 million by the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee; $1.1 million by Majority PAC; $775,167 by Service Employees International Union; and $500,000 by the League of Conservation Voters. Santa also mentioned two outside groups that bought radio airtime to thank Brown, but she did not have any exact figures for those buys.
Those figures total $13.4 million, meaning the Ohio GOP has identified enough funding sources to support the amount of spending it claimed. Brown’s campaign confirmed the figures are accurate.
But the GOP’s list also supports the counterclaim from Brown’s camp that most of the spending was done by his campaign and the DSCC, and not by outside groups or special interests. Of the more than $13 million, Brown’s campaign and the DSCC accounted for about $11 million.
Briffault, the Columbia law professor, said he would not consider spending by the DSCC or Brown’s campaign as outside spending.
That would leave about $2.4 million in outside spending on Brown’s behalf, a figure Brown’s campaign does not dispute.
So where does that leave us with the Ohio GOP’s statement?
Santa, the Ohio GOP spokeswoman, said "Brown and his special interest allies" were planning to spend more than $13 million to defeat Mandel.
The claim is literally true because it includes both Brown and his allies. But the context in which it was made is important, too. The dispute between the campaigns revolved around outside money, and Santa’s email, in fact, focused on outside money:
"Redfern is the least credible person to be commenting on outside spending when it comes to Ohio’s U.S. Senate race. Sherrod Brown and his special interest allies in Washington are plotting to spend over $13 million, with no end in sight. It’s clear that Brown and his supporters are having to spend this type of money because Brown’s out-of-touch record has exposed him to Ohioans as a 38-year politician and Washington insider who puts politics over people."
Santa said her $13 million figure is accurate because it was meant to include spending from all the players contributing to Brown’s re-election, not just outside money. But the conversation, which began with Redfern’s criticism of $10.5 million in outside spending tied to Mandel, was clearly focused on outside spending and not overall spending.
(To keep Redfern honest, we asked the Ohio Democratic Party for the funding sources Redfern was talking about. The list included the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, American Crossroads and other groups. Neither Mandel’s campaign nor the National Republican Senatorial Committee – the GOP equivalent of the DSCC – were on the list.)
Those details are important to know to be able to put the Ohio Republican Party’s claim in context.
On the Truth-O-Meter, the claim rates Half True.
The Plain Dealer via Cleveland.com, "Ohio Senate race drawing millions of dollars in spending for attack ads," July 10, 2012
E-mail correspondence with Ohio GOP spokeswoman Izzy Santa, July 10-12, 2012
Phone interview with Santa, July 12, 2012
Phone interviews with Sherrod Brown campaign spokesman Justin Barasky, July 10-12, 2012
E-mail correspondence with Ohio Democratic Party spokesman Andrew Zucker, July 12, 2012
E-mail correspondence with Columbia Law School professor Richard Briffault
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