FAIRBANKS -- You'll soon be hearing the words "I approve this message," the tagline required by federal law on political ads, from every TV screen in the land.
Even so, for the first time ever in a U.S. Senate race in Alaska, groups not controlled by the candidates are expected to emerge as major campaign messengers in 2014.
The election provides the first full demonstration of how court rulings, including the 2010 U.S. Supreme Court decision in the case Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, are reshaping political financing in Alaska. The change here began in 2010, when Alaska Native corporations led a so-called super PAC that raised more than $1.7 million to support Sen. Lisa Murkowski’s write-in campaign, a vital element in her come-from-behind victory.
In the past four years, the prospect of allowing political activists to tap into unlimited pots of money from corporations and labor unions has opened a new cash flow system in American politics.
In Alaska, one sign of how the political machinery is adapting can be found among allies of Sen. Mark Begich, Lt. Gov. Mead Treadwell and former Natural Resources Commissioner Dan Sullivan, who created three independent political action committees to collect contributions.
The main differences between these super PACs and traditional candidate committees is that they are not bound by contribution limits and the candidates don’t call the shots. So far there is no committee formed specifically to help Fairbanks lawyer Joe Miller.
Individuals who give directly to the candidates are limited to $2,600 for the primary and the same amount for the general. The law prohibits contributions to candidate committees from corporations and labor unions.
None of those restrictions apply to the independent committees and the other super PACs that will play a major role in the Senate contest.
National import, state impact
The political implications of the 2014 Alaska race extend far beyond the state’s borders, as the balance of power in the U.S. Senate is on the line.
Any number of super PACs could decide that spending money on the Alaska Senate campaign is a relatively inexpensive bet -- compared to more populous states -- to either preserve a Democratic seat or gain one for the Republicans.
The Alaska super PACs are positioning themselves as the ideal recipients of cash donations from the dominant national committees that will have a great deal of cash to spend and very little knowledge of Alaska. The local expertise could be a way to avoid a costly blunder that would be obvious to viewers in Alaska.
The super PACs function in almost the same way as candidates’ committees. They can run parallel campaigns that sing the praises of Candidate X or denounce Candidate Y.
It’s easy to craft a message that favors one candidate over another; they can become campaign surrogates while abstaining from all prohibited communication with the senator or would-be senator.
The Alaska super PACs say they are keeping their distance from the candidates they favor, though the federal election rules specify that the only real no-nos are coordinating on campaign strategy and spending.
The first super PAC to form was Put Alaska First, headed by Jim Lottsfeldt of Anchorage, a public relations and marketing consultant who supports Begich.
He said he created the committee after seeing what happened in Montana in 2012 when Democratic Sen. Jon Tester ran for re-election. More than $51 million poured into the state, about $100 per voter, mainly because the GOP saw a chance to gain a seat and the Democrats responded. The groups from outside Montana spent $21 million, almost as much as the candidates, ProPublica reported.
Lottsfeldt, who said he has supported Republicans and Democrats in the past, said he thinks the fundraising system is flawed, but “if my side decides to stand on a matter of pride and not play the game, my candidate’s going to lose.”
“I think it’s good for Alaska to re-elect Mark Begich because of where he stands on the issues," he said.
The group ran its first ad in December, a 30-second spot that defended Begich against an ad from an Outside group in which a Maryland actress, acting as if she lived in Alaska, said she was angry at Begich.
“Sen. Begich didn’t listen. How can I ever trust him again? It just isn’t fair. Alaska deserves better,” the actress said in the ad, which was paid for by Americans for Prosperity, a group backed by the Koch brothers. Americans for Prosperity is not a super PAC but a 501(c)4 organization that spent $36 million in the 2012 federal elections and does not have to reveal its donors.
Lottsfeldt said the ad was an example of how “Outside interests spend millions of dollars to influence Alaska voters,” while the response ad featured Megan Collie of Anchorage.
“I’m not an actress. I live here. And I trust Mark Begich,” Collie said in the ad. “He’s trying to fix the health care law. He turned down federal help to pay for his insurance. He signed up on the same website with the same plans and costs available to the rest of us.”
Lottsfeldt said that spending by super PACs from Outside and the 501(c)4 groups that don't disclose donors will probably outstrip the budgets of the super PACs in Alaska because of their nationwide reach, adding that conservative groups will spend millions of dollars making misleading claims about Begich.
Brave new world
“It’s an all-new world here and it’s changing rapidly,” Lottsfeldt said. “It strikes me that there’s a lot of national interest with huge amounts of money that can come in and swamp our little dinghies pretty easily with the wake from the luxury cruisers they’re driving.”
Alaska has not seen a campaign like the one to come, he said.
On that score he has no real disagreement with veteran Alaska political consultant Art Hackney, who heads the super PAC that supports Sullivan, Alaska’s Energy, America’s Values.
“With polling that shows Alaska to be a state that might well put somebody back in the red column in the U.S. Senate, people are going to spend a lot of money up here,” said Hackney.
“I knew that in an election like this, super PACs were an inevitability, and I just felt that a super PAC ought to be controlled by a group of Alaskans who understood that you don’t go in and just say ‘liberal, liberal, liberal’ and hit people on the head with a two-by-four,” he said.
It’s not a two-by-four, perhaps, but Hackney says his early ads attack Begich as “Malarkey Mark” because the incumbent has been running ads for three years, plugging along, delivering a message and building “up an armor of goodwill” that is undeserved.
One of Hackney's radio ads for the pro-Sullivan super PAC said, “Today the American Dream is being suffocated, and Sen. Mark Begich is part of the problem. Begich was the deciding vote for Obamacare. Now he’s trying to duck and hide. Alaska and America deserve better.”
Hackney said that multiple super PACs supporting Democrats will raise and spend millions of dollars to back Begich and that without a pro-Sullivan super PAC, “you're not equipped for the battle that's going to happen.”
Lottsfeldt said that while the pro-Sullivan forces are aiming at Begich, he argues that there is a Republican primary ahead and that “Sullivan is running third, behind Treadwell and Miller.”
Attacking the incumbent is the norm in politics and the third independent committee, Freedom’s Frontier, is also pursuing that course, with the goal of boosting the Treadwell campaign.
Freedom’s Frontier is led by Alan Philp, former director of the Colorado Republican Party. He said he is a longtime friend of Treadwell’s, though he hasn’t had a conversation with him for a year. Like Lottsfeldt and Hackney, he sees major spending ahead from the super-sized PACs.
“I cannot imagine a scenario in which there aren’t some very well funded super PACs and Outside entities on both sides of the aisle that will be involved in Alaska,” Philp said.
“We’re really starting to get the wheels spinning on the fundraising at this point,” he said. “Harry Reid and the Democrats are going to spend enormous amounts to try and defend Mark Begich. He’s been a loyal soldier.”
The first overall status report on the three independent groups comes at the end of January when Federal Election Commission reports are due on the last six months of 2013.