Behind closed doors: Dark money and outside spending in the 2016 election


By Ashley Bunton - Staff Columnist



When I arrived at The Vault in Columbus on election night, I was greeted by Senator Rob Portman’s communications director with the news that Portman had won his re-election contest. As I stood in the media area waiting for Portman to deliver his speech at 8:15 p.m., the televisions and projectors surrounded us with broadcasts of the presidential election coverage from Fox News. A large swath of the United States was red.

This is Portman’s sixth consecutive year as Ohio senator. Portman’s competition, former Ohio Governor Ted Strickland, was the Democratic Senate candidate and had been dubbed “Retread Ted” after a considerable failure in state budget management during the 2008 recession.

The Ohio Senate contest between the two candidates was one of the top election contests in the nation this year. As of October, more than $7.5 million in dark money had been spent in the Ohio Senate contest between Portman and Strickland. Dark money campaign contributions come from undisclosed donors. The Ohio Senate contest had the most dark money spending in the nation just behind the Pennsylvania Senate contest ($10.3 million) and the presidential contest ($31.4 million).

These figures were compiled by the Center for Responsive Politics, a non-profit, non-partisan research group in Washington DC. I saw Sheila Krumholz from the Center for Responsive Politics at the Ohio Bar Association in October. Sheila said that as of February, only 65 of nearly 5,000 ads that had run in Ohio in the Ohio Senate contest were paid for by an organization that disclosed its donors.

In addition to undisclosed dark money spending, Sheila said outside groups spent four times as much money on behalf of Portman than he had spent himself. In fact, they had spent $13 million more than he had raised, based on his last report. Those figures have changed, as the tallies were updated again after I saw Sheila, but at that time, more than $50 million in outside spending had been spent in the Ohio Senate race.

The figures for outside spending and dark money do not include the amount of cash the candidates had on hand or had raised themselves in their campaigns.

Because dark money donors can give money to Super PACs without leaving fingerprints, spending by non-disclosing organizations has increased tremendously. Sheila said studies have shown that when people don’t recognize the organization running an ad, they don’t question it. Those donors don’t have to worry about being identified which could affect the credibility of their ad.

Believe it or not, I don’t watch TV. So when I reached out to Portman’s campaign back in the early summer, I wasn’t keyed in on the contents of the political attack ads that had been playing back and forth.

I didn’t have to be. I already knew about Ted Strickland’s failed economics as governor. In 2009, Strickland and his budget committee made the decision to cut funding to the Ohio College Opportunity Grant (OCOG). This state of Ohio’s only grant to low-income college students is some of the only free grant money available, besides the federal Pell grant. In 2009 a student at a college branch campus who had received the maximum OCOG award of about $2,500 a year now received $0. In one year, a stroke of the pen, the grant was all but gutted by Strickland and his budget committee.

What Strickland’s office did do, however, was increase the military joining bonus for that same year by 600 percent. This was to increase the number of troops to fight the Iraq insurgency.

These politics left high school graduates with two basic choices: go to college and enter into debt or join the military and enter into combat. That is the price young people pay for coming up in the world.

In 2009, I wrote Strickland letters asking him about the OCOG and his decision to cut it. He never responded. When I met Strickland this year, I asked him face-to-face about the OCOG and why he cut it as governor. He said he couldn’t remember what the OCOG was, but that he had done the best that he could do given the national economic recession that was occurring in 2008.

Knowing that Strickland came from a poor background but had two college degrees, I asked him how he could have afforded to go to college. He said his family, church and community helped him. When Strickland was going to college, that may seem like a viable means of obtaining an education. But with the inflated cost of living and higher education tuition, it’s near impossible to think that today’s child could rely only on its family, church and community for the tens of thousands of dollars it costs to obtain a college degree.

And of course, Strickland blamed the resultant economic recession of 2008 on the previous years Portman was working on budgets for George W. Bush. Strickland said it was Portman’s fault. But if Portman was working for Bush, then he wasn’t in Columbus, Ohio, and if he wasn’t in Columbus, Ohio, then he wasn’t drafting Strickland’s proposal to cut the college grant for low-income students.

For me, the television attack ads between Strickland and Portman didn’t mean anything. I never saw them. I trusted my intuition. The outside groups funding the campaign ads can say what they want to without having to have permission from the Federal Elections Commission or the FCC. What is said in campaign ads does not have to be the truth. In 2016 the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that an Ohio law prohibiting campaign lies violated the First Amendment right to free speech.

Over one billion dollars was spent in 2016 on all of the election contests. As we move forward in the name of progress, I believe we must address the ethics of electioneering and political discourse. Is it okay for politicians to be able to receive millions of dollars from non-disclosing donors? Is it okay for the outside spenders to create political ads without the candidate’s knowledge or permission? Should there be any regulation of the ad contents? Is it okay for non-disclosed or outside spenders to create television ads that lie? How would the average TV viewer be able to ascertain the truth from a lie?

In the 2016 presidential contest, dark money spending was more then $13 million while outside spending increased to over half a billion dollars. Outside organizations spent more money on the elections than the candidates themselves. I knew the large swath of red on the map was going to grow larger the longer the night went on and as I watched Portman give his speech at The Vault on election night, I could only begin to have hope that the impending chaos and catastrophe will be resolved.

Because we must consider that with Trump’s election, it’s not a question of “if” any chaos or catastrophe will shape up and take place. It’s a question of when, and of understanding how bad it will be, so that we can shape up and take our place.

We must consider that someone like Donald J. Trump, with no government or military experience, used the media, dark money and outside spending to rise to the highest office of our land. His intentions are unclear, his cabinet and advisors are a puddle of dirty white supremacy, racism and misogyny. We must ask ourselves, what does this open the door for? But more importantly, who does this open the door for?

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By Ashley Bunton

Staff Columnist

Reach Ashley at (740) 313-0355 or on Twitter @ashbunton

Reach Ashley at (740) 313-0355 or on Twitter @ashbunton