November’s general election left Washington state awash in proof that, in politics, you often don’t get what you pay for.
Big campaign investments produced woeful returns, and not just in pricey Seattle City Council races where Amazon put up $1.45 million to back business-friendlier candidates. The bulk of that money arrived with a splash after hundreds of thousands of dollars had already flowed into the election from labor and other interests.
Statewide campaign committees to legalize affirmative action through Referendum 88 outspent opponents by nearly $200,000 but lost anyway. The campaign to preserve transportation projects against Initiative 976, Tim Eyman’s latest anti-tax initiative, topped $4 million in spending. Eyman’s side spent a fraction of that and won.
Even in the little city of Puyallup, a surge of independent money poured into three city council races from supporters of a warehouse project on 162 muddy acres of former farmland.
The development, on the site of a former daffodil farm, has been so controversial it was contested before the state Supreme Court. Although north Pierce County has many industrial warehouses, the project stretches the warehouse presence south of the Puyallup River and to the fringe of the city.
While ground was cleared to prepare the site, voters in Puyallup, with a population of 41,000, were inundated with $184,613 of messaging by campaigns and independent actors in this year’s council races, according to state Public Disclosure Commission records. That is a full 72% more than was spent on the 2015 and 2011 cycles — combined.
Spending amounted to more than $16 per ballot cast. And the candidates showered with the surge of independent money went 0-3.
“It really was the kiss of death,” said Puyallup Mayor John Palmer. He has favored strong municipal review of the warehouse project’s impacts and was among those candidates targeted by project supporters.
Palmer was reelected after his campaign and supporters spent less than $9,000 — about $50,000 less than was spent against him. He predicted as much when we spoke about the election spending in October, after disclosure requirements showed who had funded the tide of campaign mailers arriving daily.
“People don’t like to see the farmland go,” Palmer said, “or to see so many trucks put onto a commuter corridor.”
In my review of prominent elections across the state, I found only one where outsize campaign money paid off: the Spokane mayor’s race, which drew more than $1 million in total spending. There, City Council President Ben Stuckart lost to first-time candidate Nadine Woodward, who benefited from more than $400,000 spent independently by Realtors, developers and related interests.
With big statewide elections ahead in 2020, these lackluster results ought to give pause to well-moneyed interests about their chances. Yet state Sen. Sam Hunt, who chairs the Senate’s State Government, Tribal Relations and Elections Committee, says the “free-for-all” will likely continue.
He held a hearing this week on state options but thinks state government doesn’t have much power to slow the flood.
The U.S. Supreme Court’s 2010 Citizens United ruling solidified the landscape. In U.S. Sen. Mitt Romney’s widely derided phrasing, “Corporations are people too,” in the eyes of the law. In other words, Amazon Inc. has just as much legal ability to deposit a campaign check as does Jeffrey P. Bezos, registered King County voter.
Hunt sees that too.
“I think we’re pretty well stymied,” he said. “We can work for transparency, which I think we’ve done a pretty good job on.”
This year’s outcomes show what happens if transparency is the only strongly enforced restriction. Money creates a flood of online advertising and direct mailouts, and voters are left to wade through it all. That’s the corner democracy gets painted into with unrestricted spending when campaign rhetoric is protected as free speech.
“It’s largely up to, frankly, the press and the people to see what’s going on and study the issues and hopefully know who’s trying to do what to them and for them,” Hunt said.
Given this situation, it’s likely that future voters will apply the same calculation as just prevailed in big Seattle and small Puyallup. In each case, observers considered the big money reasonable evidence that something, or someone, was for sale. Unlimited money is a formidable weapon for a political campaign, but it does carry a risk of backfiring.