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When does an election start and when does it end? - KXLH.com | Helena, Montana

When does an election start and when does it end?

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 BOZEMAN -- When does an election start and when does it end? In the post-Citizens United world, it is hard to tell.

This week, Montana governor Governor Bullock (D) -- who won't face the voters again until November 2016 -- sent out an e-mail asking folks to chip in to “help [him] build a grassroots foundation” against the influence of out-of-state groups pouring money into the state.

Bullock, of course, is talking about Americans for Prosperity, a conservative organization funded in large part by the infamous Koch brothers. Americans for Prosperity is a 501(c)4 organization that can engage in an unlimited amount of lobbying and limited forms of campaign activity so long as that activity is not the organization's “primary purpose.”

And Americans for Prosperity certainly has been active this legislative session. Most notably, they held a series of forums in the districts of three Republican state legislators reminding them not to support the Governor's Medicaid expansion plan. The meeting was promoted with posters and postcards telling the legislators to vote “No on Obamacare's Medicaid expansion in Montana.”

Although the forums looked like campaign rallies and the fliers like campaign advertisements, they are not. They are both forms of issue advocacy, which means groups like AFP can use corporate dollars to pay for them and face different disclosure requirements because of the Citizens United decision that came down from the U.S. Supreme Court in June 2010.

Lobbying and issue advocacy is not new. Interest groups have long been active in American politics, holding legislator's feet to the fire on issues ranging from the abolition of slavery to prohibition.

What is new under the Citizens United regime is that it is increasingly difficult for the public to see the line between lobbying and electioneering, and the fact that immense amounts of money are pouring into the political system to sway the perceptions of voters long before they cast their ballots. It is notable that these efforts are increasingly filtering down to state and local races.

State and local elections are fought in a low information environment. Rarely do state legislative elections cost candidates more than $10,000 or $15,000. Without the large campaign budgets of U.S. Senate and House campaigns, voters often have little information with which to make decisions. Name identification and partisanship are the key ways voters make decisions in these races. In primary campaigns, party id is not available, so name identification dominates.

Outside groups spend money on issue advocacy well in advance of elections in the hope of dominating the information environment with their interpretation of political issues.  With enough money and time, groups like Americans for Prosperity make it difficult for legislators to oppose them because legislators can't compete on equal footing in the information environment when explaining a different position. 

This has two possible consequences. First, legislators are increasingly leery of opposing organizations with substantial resources—and, hence, state legislators within each party become increasingly homogenized ideologically and hue to the positions of these organizations. Second, when organizations single out legislators for attention with rallies and fliers, it signals to other ambitious office-seekers that a primary challenge against a targeted legislator might receive ample outside financial assistance. In the short term, this might increase electoral competition but—in the long term—could further cement ideological rigidity within each party if these primary challenges are successful.

Which brings us full circle back to the Governor's e-mail. As more and more money comes into the political system between elections from outside groups, candidates are forced to raise more and more money to remain electorally relevant and competitive. This forces candidates into a perpetual state of fundraising, and, means that campaigns for reelection are beginning earlier and earlier.

Although speculating about cause and effect is always hazardous, it is interesting to note nonetheless that the three Republican legislators targeted by AFP all voted against further consideration of the Governor's Medicaid expansion plan Tuesday. 

Unfortunately, while all this money in the political system can have some positive consequences for the engagement of citizens, it has a net negative effect on the ability to govern through compromise. It also means that outside groups have more power than ever before to dictate political outcomes—both at the ballot box and in Helena.

-- Dr. David Parker is a political science professor at Montana State University and a political analyst for the Montana Television Network. Dr. Parker wrote a book about the 2012 U.S. Senate race between Jon Tester and Denny Rehberg titled, “Battle for the Big Sky."
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