Last week, Idaho Falls was buzzing over a group called “Businesses for Growth."
It is an independent expenditure group targeting Idaho Falls Mayor Rebecca Casper with billboards stating, “Anybody But Casper”. Their financial report stated $15,100 had been raised with almost two-thirds of the money coming from controversial conservative activist Doyle Beck through various entities of which he is part.
In Idaho, an “Independent expenditure” is defined as:
. . . .any expenditure by a person for a communication expressly advocating the election, passage or defeat of a clearly identified candidate or measure that is not made with the cooperation or with the prior consent of, or in consultation with, or at the consent of, or in consultation with, or at the request of a suggestion of, a candidate or any agent or authorized committee of the candidate or political committee supporting or opposing a measure. As used in this subsection, “expressly advocating” means any communication containing a message advocating election, passage or defeat including, but not limited to, the name of the candidate or measure, or expression such as “vote for,” “elect,” “support,” “cast your ballot for,” “vote against,” “defeat” or “reject.”
In Idaho, most candidates (for the Idaho Legislature, county and city offices) are limited to raising money with a limit of $1,000 per contributor per election. Statewide races can raise contributions of up to $5,000 per election. Contributions to independent expenditure groups are unlimited. That’s a big advantage.
The key restriction on these groups is that they cannot make any expenditure “with the cooperation or with the prior consent of, or in consultation with, or at the consent of, or in consultation with, or at the request of a suggestion of, a candidate or any agent or authorized committee of the candidate”. They must act separately and without working with a candidate or the candidate’s apparatus.
Here is where things get interesting.
Idaho Republicans have a huge primary clash set to be decided in May of 2018 between three strong candidates for governor: Rep. Raul Labrador, Lt. Gov. Brad Little and businessman Tommy Ahlquist.
The first two are actively fundraising and Ahlquist has contributed substantial amounts of his own fortune (plus fundraising). The inherent advantage of funds raised by a campaign is that it can then direct where the money goes and what specifically is said in advertising using those funds.
For instance, if Labrador wants to focus on his staunch stance on immigration, his campaign can send out press releases on the topic, broadcast on-point TV ads and flood social media on the topic.
But, word is circulating about the establishment of independent expenditure efforts, one on behalf of Labrador and the other for Ahlquist. There is talk of other groups to benefit other candidates or oppose specific candidates.
What each of these may do is a subject of intense speculation. Will the group backing Labrador go after his opponents or focus on boosting him, or a combination of both approaches? The same questions can be asked concerning the pro-Ahlquist group or any other launched.
Here is the rub on these groups. Their efforts may be helpful to the intended beneficiary. But because of the requirement not to coordinate with the campaign, they can get cross-wise with the campaign on messages by talking about things that don’t help or may even hurt. If they do coordinate, they are open to legal challenge or negative press attention.
The bigger danger is when the group itself becomes the story. For instance, the recent group in Idaho Falls has been blasted for its association with Mr. Beck and some of his co-contributors. That focus has overwhelmed any message the group seeks to get out.
That is the real danger for any of these groups that try to support or oppose candidates in 2018.