With Democratic strategists fearing that a landslide victory by Gov. Chris Christie could threaten control of the Legislature, party leaders are relying on a new independent expenditure committee that can raise large sums without limit to pump $10 million to $20 million into defending targeted districts this fall.
The Fund for Jobs, Growth & Security has already spent $508,536 on polling, field strategies and direct support for the Democratic minimum wage campaign and six South Jersey legislators.
George Norcross, the South Jersey powerbroker, and other leading Democrats are actively raising money for the organization, which currently has almost $1.25 million sitting in its bank account — all of it contributed by three union groups.
“It’s really the Wild West post-Citizens United,” said one Democratic strategist, referring to the U.S. Supreme Court opinion that allowed unlimited spending by independent groups. “As a reformer, I’m horrified, but as a partisan, I’m happy Democrats aren’t being wimpy and bringing bottle-rockets to a bazooka fight.”
The strategist, who asked not to be identified, confirmed that the Fund for Jobs, Growth & Security, which sued the New Jersey Election Law Enforcement Commission (ELEC) and won agreement to its demand to be able to raise and spend unlimited sums, has replaced One New Jersey as the leading independent Democratic fundraising vehicle, adding that insiders were discussing raising as much as $20 million.
The emergence of the Fund for Jobs, Growth & Security is just the latest example of the increased importance of independent-expenditure committees that are not subject to spending limits and do not have to disclose their donors as long as they do not coordinate their activities with political candidates or directly urge citizens to vote for a particular candidate.
“I am anticipating that $30 million to $40 million will be raised and spent by independent groups in this election cycle,” said Jeffrey M. Brindle, ELEC’s executive director. “We had gubernatorial elections in Washington and Florida where $40 million was spent independently, and given the fact that New Jersey and Virginia are the only two states with gubernatorial and legislative elections this year, there is going to be a lot of outside money coming in.”
ELEC issued a report that noted that more than $14 million had already been spent by independent groups through the June primary. The biggest chunk was the $7.8 million spent by the Committee For Our Children’s Future, a Republican group whose barrage of TV ads in support of Christie’s tax cuts, pension and health benefit changes, tenure reform, and other policies was critical in building up Christie’s poll numbers before Hurricane Sandy catapulted the governor’s ratings into the stratosphere where they still reside.
Christie has maintained a 28- to 32-percentage point lead over Sen. Barbara Buono (D-Middlesex) for almost five months, and Democratic legislative leaders fear that a Christie blowout could cut into or eliminate their 24-16 majority in the Senate and 48-32 margin in the Assembly.
Former Gov. Thomas H. Kean, the last Republican to win the governorship by a landslide, switched his focus in the final month to run against the “obstructionist” Democratic Assembly and carried in 20 new Republican Assembly members and a GOP Assembly majority, even winning seats unexpectedly in Democratic Hudson County.
Christie so far has been running a campaign based on bipartisanship, collecting endorsements from more than 30 Democratic elected officials, including powerful Essex County Executive Joseph DiVincenzo. He has not made winning control of the Legislature a political priority by targeting potentially vulnerable Democrats, many of whom were among the “Christie-crats” who backed his controversial pension and health benefit reform. But that doesn’t mean Christie won’t do so if he is still up by 30 points in October and believes control of the Senate or Assembly is in reach. And it doesn’t mean he’s incapable of sweeping in a Republican majority without really trying if his margin is big enough.
That’s what worries Norcross and other Democratic leaders
“Norcross is in the insurance business, and this new independent-expenditure committee is his insurance against a Christie landslide,” quipped a second Democratic strategist, who also asked not to be identified. “It’s all about protecting the Senate majority. Most of the vulnerable seats are in the south, and while the polls don’t show Christie having coattails in the legislative races, nobody really knows what’s going to happen if this lead holds up. And if Buono can’t raise the money, she won’t be able to move the needle by more than a few points.”
While Christie raised $6.874 million in the primary and reported another $2 million haul in his first post-primary report, Buono raised just over $1 million from donors and qualified for another $1.9 million in matching funds during the primary, and has yet to file for matching funds for the general election — an indication she may not yet have raised the necessary $380,000 to qualify.
With Buono locked in a seemingly hopeless cycle — she can’t raise money because she’s behind in the polls, and she can’t catch up in the polls because she doesn’t have the money she needs for an aggressive TV campaign — the Democratic Governors Association may decide to ignore New Jersey and put all of its money into the competitive Virginia governor’s race, Democratic strategists said.
Meanwhile, the Republican Governors Association, whose independent expenditure committee already spent $1.75 million boosting Christie during the primary, is likely to continue to pump money into New Jersey into the fall. After all, Christie is not only one of the leading candidates for the 2016 Republican presidential nomination, but also the incoming chairman of the Republican Governors Association in 2014.
“The Democratic Governors Association reads the same tea leaves we’re reading,” said the second Democratic consultant. “They know One New Jersey put $2.8 million into TV and radio advertising against Christie and barely moved the needle. He’s utilized the trappings of his office to build popular support through town meetings that reporters cover; his YouTube videos and Sandy turned him into a national celebrity who gets to go on Letterman; and the president gift-wrapped $25 million in Sandy tourism advertising that he used to promote himself and his family. How do you compete with that?”
That’s why Democratic leaders created the Fund for Jobs, Growth & Security – not to compete with Christie, but to build a big-enough warchest to protect a Democratic majority in the Senate and Assembly that would be much more vulnerable if Democrats had not succeeded in persuading the late Alan Rosenthal, who served as neutral tie-breaker on the Legislative Redistricting Commission in 2011, to select their preferred legislative map.
The first $1,750,000 in contributions reported to ELEC included $1 million from Garden State Forward, the independent expenditure committee operated by the New Jersey Education Association; $500,000 from the New Jersey Council of Carpenters Political Education Committee; and $250,000 from Working for Working Americans, a Washington-based national coalition made up of building trades unions.
“This committee is bringing together Democrats, the public employee unions and the building trades unions to go toe to toe with the Republicans where it counts. This committee gives Democrats the ability to quickly raise and direct large sums into targeted districts where it’s needed,” the first Democratic strategist explained, noting that sophisticated polling data could show last-minute voter-preference shifts in unexpected places. The committee has already paid $140,000 to Greenberg Quinlan and two other firms for polling.
The Fund for Jobs, Growth & Security focused its first independent expenditures on behalf of potentially embattled legislators in South Jersey. The committee spent $16,155 to support Sen. Jim Whelan (D-Atlantic), the former Atlantic City mayor whose split 2nd District is also represented by two Republican Assembly members; $11,263 each for Assemblymen Herb Conaway and Troy Singleton (both D-Burlington), who share the battleground 7th District with popular Republican Sen. Diane Allen; and $5,384 each on behalf of Sen. Jeff Van Drew and Assemblymen Nelson Albano and Bob Andrzejczak, whose 1st District stretches across traditionally Republican Cape May County and the swing county of Cumberland.
Democratic strategists agreed that the new committee also would be likely to put money into:
The Fund for Jobs, Growth & Security also spent $54,482 on independent expenditures to support the Democratic legislative initiative to raise the minimum wages, ELEC reports showed.
It is unclear who will be making the direct strategic decisions on where to put the Fund for Jobs, Growth & Security’s money, but it most likely will not be Norcross or any other party leaders closely aligned with Democratic legislative campaigns, strategists said. To do so would raise questions about whether the independent committee is coordinating its efforts with legislative campaigns, which would be an election law violation.
That is why the committee paid $5,650 this spring to purchase Democratic voter access files from the Democratic State Committee. It was a necessary expenditure because the super-PAC needs to maintain its independence from legislative candidates, campaigns, and their staffs in order to keep the independent committee status that enables it to raise and spend unlimited sums.
The new committee has been represented by Marc Elias, the Democratic Party’s top Washington legal expert on campaign finance, and by longtime Democratic lawyer Angelo Genova in its negotiations with the New Jersey Election Law Enforcement Commission.
Genova did not respond to questions yesterday about the committee’s decision-making process, and Norcross was on vacation and unavailable for comment.
It was Genova who filed the lawsuit on behalf of the Fund for Jobs, Growth & Security challenging the Election Law Enforcement Commission’s decision to apply its $7,200 limit on contributions to political action committees to the group. ELEC had allowed national organizations such as the Republican Governors Association and the Democratic Governors Association to exceed the $7,200 limit because they operated nationwide, but ruled that the new Democratic group should abide by the limit because its primary focus was New Jersey legislative races.
“In the wake of Citizens United, numerous federal courts have held that political organizations like the Fund may accept and solicit unlimited donations from corporations and unions to make independent expenditures,” Genova argued in the lawsuit.
The Fund obtained a preliminary injunction on April 26 that enabled it to begin raising unlimited funds, and on July 17, ELEC agreed to a settlement in which it withdrew its advisory opinion imposing a $7,200 fundraising limit on the Democratic group and promised to recommend legislation exempting all independent expenditure political committees from contribution limits.
For the Fund for Jobs, Growth & Security, the ELEC settlement represented a green light to begin fundraising in earnest.
In its press release announcing the settlement, ELEC noted that the 2010 Supreme Court decision in Citizens United invalidating a ban on independent expenditures by corporations and unions had subsequently been interpreted in SpeechNow.com v. FEC and Carey v. FEC to mean that independent committees could not be made subject to contribution limits.
Brindle, the ELEC executive director, noted that the Fund for Jobs, Growth & Security had always agreed to make the names of its donors public, which is more than most independent expenditure committees have done.
But the expansion of independent expenditure committees clearly undermines efforts to limit the influence of special interest money in political campaigns, and represents a step back for campaign finance reform in New Jersey.
“The history of campaign finance reform in this country for the past 100 years is that it is extremely difficult to get campaign finance reforms laws passed, and when you do, creative people find ways around them that makes the situation worse than before,” said John Weingart, assistant director of Rutgers University’s Eagleton Institute of Politics.