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Statehouse Beat: Elections after Citizens United

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Last year's gubernatorial special election may have been the first post-Citizens United campaign in the state where a special interest PAC spent more money on an election than the candidate -- but it obviously won't be the last.

The political action arm of the Republican Governors Association spent nearly half again as much on the race ($3.45 million) as candidate Bill Maloney's own campaign ($2.4 million).

Some would say that contributed to Maloney's defeat (after pulling into a dead-heat, Maloney's campaign tried to go positive in the final 10 days of the campaign, but was drowned out by the constant barrage of RGA attack ads), and is a factor in the high negatives Maloney carries into this race.

It doesn't look like the RGA will spend anywhere close to that on the rematch. They're listing $994,381 of total expenditures, and last week made what presumably will be their last big buy of airtime statewide, for about $800,000 -- including $500,000 for stations in the Charleston-Huntington market.

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With no limits on how much special interest PACs can raise and spend, thanks to the Citizens United decision, its not hard to envision that in a small state like West Virginia -- where there's not a lot of big-money campaigns, once you get beyond congressional, gubernatorial and occasional Supreme Court races -- that ultimately, the super-PACs and not the candidates will effectively run the campaigns.

It's happening this year in the attorney general's race, where the campaigns of Attorney General Darrell McGraw and Republican challenger Patrick Morrisey have barely exceeded the half-million mark combined.

Yet, the Mountaineer Center for Fairness and Justice -- the political action arm of the Democratic Attorney Generals Association, and funded largely through contributions from trial lawyers -- has spent $345,000 on ads attacking Morrisey.

But that's nothing. Last week, the Center for Individual Freedom, also based in metro-Washington, D.C., and initially funded by contributions from cigarette manufacturer Phillip Morris (now the Altria Group) made what may be the largest single independent expenditure in state history, at $1.59 million, for ads attacking McGraw.

Like Maloney at the end of the 2011 special election, the candidates will essentially be spectators in their own campaigns, as Washington trial lawyers clash with Big Tobacco interests to determine who will be our next attorney general.

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Television stations are complicit in this scam, as an excellent report by media watchdog group Free Press found.

Under federal law and regulations, TV stations are legally obligated to run campaign ads provided by candidates and political parties regardless of whether the ads are true or not, so long as they stop short of egregious slander or obscenity.

However, broadcasters can refuse to air ads from PACs if the ads are false or deceptive -- in fact, they can be held liable for knowingly running false ads.

As Free Press found in its report, "Left in the Dark," about the only fact-checking and screening TV stations do with PAC ads is making sure the check clears the bank.

It also surveyed local newscasts in various cities, and found essentially no news coverage or analysis of the lucrative PAC ads airing on those stations.

(With close to $3.5 billion in political ad buys nationally this election cycle, it's not hard to understand why, as the report states, "TV station owners are loathe to bite the hand that feeds them.")

On its website (freepress.net), the group is encouraging viewers to call or e-mail management of their local TV stations to demand that they stop airing misleading political ads, with the message, "We must hold broadcasters accountable for airing ads that mislead voters."

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A good place to start might be with the RGA ads that claim then-Sen. Earl Ray Tomblin's vote (one of 101 "ayes"; it passed 32-0 in the Senate), for Gov. Joe Manchin's 2009 piffle of an alternative energy bill makes him part of Obama's "war on coal."

In reality, HB103 is one of those feel-good/do-nothing bills that the Legislature so often passes.

Looking over some 2009 news clippings, the Gazette editorial summarizing the achievements and flops of the legislative session declared the alternative energy bill to be one of the flops: "Gov. Manchin's plan for electric utilities to generate one-fourth of their power from "renewable and alternative energy sources" by 2025 passed -- but it's dubious, because less-polluting methods of burning coal and natural gas are deemed "renewable and alternative," so power companies may meet the one-fourth requirement with no changes."

(Not to mention, future Legislatures will also get at least 16 chances to repeal or amend it.)

In an op-ed piece, environmentalist Jim Sconyers was even more blunt: "A mockery is exactly what the governor and Legislature have given us in this alternative energy bill. No bill at all would have been better."

He didn't stop there, adding, "Alternative energy" means what Joe chooses it to mean. When Joe says alternative energy, he means coal (advanced coal technology), coal (waste coal) and coal (coal gasification)."

Hardly sounds like a "war on coal," or even cap-and-trade...

By the way, the numbers to call locally are: WCHS (304-346-5358), WOWK (304-343-1313), and WSAZ (304-697-4780 or 344-3521).

• • •

Finally, when I got the one-question robo-call from the state Republican Party asking who I was going to vote for in the race for president, I selected option 3 for undecided. However, that was before Honey Boo Boo endorsed Obama on "Jimmy Kimmel Live."

Reach Phil Kabler at philk@wvgazette.com or 304-348-1220.


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