Third-party campaign cash surges to a record

OLYMPIA — Election spending by independent groups soared to record levels in 2008, continuing their emergence as a political force with the potential of affecting decisions by voters.

Business groups, labor unions, political parties and coalitions shelled out a record-setting $24.7 million trying to influence the outcome of legislative races and initiative battles this year, according to a report to be discussed today by the state Public Disclosure Commission.

Most went into the governor’s race but a slice wound up in close state legislative races and could have played a role in putting Republican Mike Hope of Lake Stevens close to unseating Rep. Liz Loomis, D-Snohomish.

This marks the third straight statewide election with special-interest groups dumping millions of dollars into the fray. It is a huge leap from 1994, when an array of political committees dished out just $269,275.

The report, which compares 2008 totals with those of previous elections, is scheduled to be discussed today by commissioners in their 9 a.m. meeting in Olympia.

They shouldn’t be shocked by what they see because they’ve received regular updates on the historic spending in this election by independent groups, special-interest organizations and various coalitions.

“This report distills the information reported to them before and gives them a picture they can look at for this election,” PDC spokeswoman Lori Anderson said.

It’s a lot of money but it’s not expected to stir talk today of reforming, repealing or amending any campaign finance laws.

Two years ago, after these political organizations dropped $5.9 million into elections when there was not a governor’s race on the ballot, commissioners wanted legislators and Gregoire to pursue restrictions on them.

“Nothing happened back then,” Anderson said, adding it would be pointless as courts have made clear political advertising is a form of free speech.

This year, nearly $4 out of every $5 spent by an interest group found its way into the rematch between Democratic Gov. Chris Gregoire and Republican Dino Rossi.

In all, $19.7 million went into the race, five times more than what got dropped into the 2004 gubernatorial contest. The total approaches the $23.6 million that Gregoire and Rossi spent combined.

On one side, the Building Industry Association of Washington and the Republican Governor’s Association fueled an $11 million campaign of ads and mailers attacking Gregoire.

On the other side, the Evergreen Progress Political Action Committee, a coalition of labor unions, and the Democratic Governor’s Association financed the bulk of a $6.1 million effort against Rossi.

A little less than $3 million went to actually say nice things about one candidate or the other.

Independent organizations and political parties also funneled $2.2 million into state legislative races and almost $1 million into the attorney general contest.

Hope said outsiders are likely the reason he’s leading Loomis by 118 votes in the 44th Legislative District. A hand recount is under way in the contest.

Roughly $53,000 in mailers went out attacking Hope on his opposition to abortion and on health-care-related issues.

“Their hit pieces were unbelievable and over the top and I am sure caused a backlash,” Hope said Wednesday from Olympia, where he attended an orientation for new legislators.

“I think it’s why I’m here. People were getting tired of the extreme negative campaigning,” he said. “When you only win by 118 votes I guarantee you 118 of them are Democrats.”

Reporter Jerry Cornfield: 360-352-8623 or jcornfield@heraldnet.com.

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