Outside spending for Washington's gubernatorial race has become increasingly concentrated in two major coalitions, one Republican and one Democratic. But a third group is hoping to make a splash and others might enter the fray.
Two political committees have emerged as the major outside spenders supporting Washington’s gubernatorial candidates, but a third organization is hoping to make a splash, and political insiders say more groups could enter the fray.
The Washington Conservation Voters, an environmental group, is preparing to launch a $750,000 advertising campaign to boost Democrat Jay Inslee in his bid against Republican Attorney General Rob McKenna.
It’s the environmental community’s largest-ever commitment to a state political race, said Brendon Cechovic, the group’s executive director, who predicted the campaign “is going to surprise Rob McKenna in a big way.”
The conservation voters are this year’s wealthiest independent group besides the two major players: the pro-McKenna RGA Washington PAC and the pro-Inslee Our Washington.
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The RGA Washington PAC is funded entirely by the national Republican Governors Association, which has given $6 million so far. Our Washington is an alliance of the national Democratic Governors Association (DGA), trial lawyers, teachers unions and other labor groups. So far it’s pulled in $5.8 million.
Both groups have run two TV ads each attacking the other candidate.
That has allowed the Inslee and McKenna campaigns, which have each raised about $9 million on their own, to focus largely on positive advertising. However, each began running TV ads this week attacking his opponent.
An association of Realtors has run radio ads supporting McKenna, but other previously active groups — including the former powerhouse Building Industry Association of Washington — appear to be teaming up with the major coalitions or sitting this campaign out entirely.
Spending is expected to ramp up in the final weeks before the election.
But so far the well-funded national super PACs, such as Karl Rove’s American Crossroads, haven’t jumped in.
“We’re kind of waiting for another shoe to drop,” said Christian Sinderman, a consultant working with the Inslee campaign. “I’m sure there will be more interest as the election gets closer.”
Independent expenditures, defined as spending on behalf of a candidate but not coordinated with his or her campaign, are playing a role in races across the country. The outside-spending groups are attractive to political activists because — unlike the candidates’ campaigns — they can accept and spend unlimited donations.
In Washington, it has been common to see ads sponsored by unions, business groups and professional associations, as well as national political organizations like the Republican Governors Association.
But over the past few elections, the outside groups have started pooling their resources.
Chris Vance, a former chairman of the state Republican Party, called that a smart move.
“That way nobody blames you for the message,” Vance said. “If Our Washington does an ad that everybody hates, nobody knows who to blame. As opposed to, if the Washington Education Association does an ad that people hate, everybody knows who to blame.”
At least two groups have chosen to buck the trend this year: the environmentalists and the Realtors.
Washington Conservation Voters has raised more than $700,000, including $250,000 from the national League of Conservation Voters, according to campaign-finance disclosure reports. In 2008, the state group raised about $337,000.
“The environmental community has never been so excited about a candidate in the state of Washington,” said Cechovic, the executive director. “Jay Inslee has been a tremendous champion for our issues. It’s a once-in-a-generation opportunity.”
The group is planning a pro-Inslee direct mail and Internet-advertising campaign targeted at undecided voters interested in environmental issues, Cechovic said. While there won’t be TV or radio ads, the group has created a website to reinforce its message.
The WA Realtors PAC has raised some $685,000 — about one-third of what it raised four years ago when it supported Republican Dino Rossi for governor.
A group spokesman, Nathan Gorton, was unavailable for comment.
The biggest group missing from this year’s outside-spending spree is the Building Industry Association of Washington, which in 2008 spent more than $6 million supporting Rossi through its ChangePAC.
New leadership and a smaller budget thanks to the housing crisis have dramatically reduced the group’s political activity. This time, they donated $500,000 to the Republican Governors Association on the hopes it is spent in Washington, said Art Castle, the group’s executive vice president.
So for now, the outside spending is being driven by the two major coalitions.
Our Washington, the liberal alliance, has so far received $3 million from the DGA, $1.35 million from teachers unions, $1.2 million from other unions and $225,000 from the Justice for All PAC, a group of attorneys, according to disclosure documents.
Rich Wood, a spokesman for the coalition, said more is coming.
“We think it’s important for Washington voters to know about Rob McKenna’s record,” said Wood, signaling that the coalition will run mostly attack ads. “It’s important for them to know that he really isn’t who he says he is.”
The pro-McKenna PAC’s fundraising is harder to track because it is channeled through the RGA, which is participating in races across the country. Nationwide, the RGA’s largest donors this cycle include billionaire brothers David and Charles Koch, the Blue Cross Blue Shield health-insurance company and Las Vegas casino magnate Sheldon Aldelson, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.
RGA spokesman Mike Schrimpf said donors believe McKenna is the GOP’s strongest gubernatorial candidate in Washington state in decades.
“It’s a large target, a great pickup opportunity,” he said. “We haven’t had a Republican governor in 30 years, so it’s important for the party.”
The prospect of electing a Republican governor here could be enough to draw other national independent groups as the race enters the homestretch.
On Friday, the AFL-CIO announced a weekly direct-mail campaign to support Inslee. The first week’s mailer hits McKenna for saying that GOP vice-presidential nominee Paul Ryan has “budget expertise.”
Other major national groups, including American Crossroads and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, either declined to discuss future plans or didn’t return phone calls.
The lack of spending by other groups may be because they are choosing to channel their spending through the governor’s associations, said Vance, the former state GOP chairman.
But others said the groups may be just waiting until the election gets closer.
Ron Dotzauer, a Democratic consultant, said the spending in the last few weeks will be dictated by polling conducted by the groups.
“If the tracking polling shows that the race is competitive, they’ll pull money out of other states,” Dotzauer said. “If this race stays competitive, there will be a scramble in the last two weeks to spend money. Lots and lots and lots of money.”
Brian M. Rosenthal: 206-464-3195 or email@example.com. On Twitter @brianmrosenthal.