Money and Democracy

Published — May 8, 2014

U.S. Chamber targets Dems in state attorney general races

Funding for attack ads difficult to trace


The ads accuse Nevada Secretary of State Ross Miller, a candidate for state attorney general, of living a lavish lifestyle at the taxpayers’ expense.

Shots of Miller with Mike Tyson and Hugh Hefner’s former girlfriend flash across the screen as the narrator highlights more than $60,000 in gifts Miller has accepted from “special interests” since taking office in 2006.

“He lives the life,” the narrator says. “You pay the tab.”

The $500,000 ad campaign is being paid for by a nonprofit from Virginia called the State Government Leadership Foundation. It’s an impressive sum, especially considering the ads ran three months before a primary in which Miller is running unopposed, and for an office that doesn’t normally get so much attention.

Miller’s campaign called on TV stations to pull the ads, challenging them as misleading.

So why is so much money being poured into the race and who is behind it? The biggest underwriter of the group behind the ad is the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the affiliated Institute for Legal Reform, according to a Center for Public Integrity investigation.

The Chamber isn’t talking, but it’s not hard to figure out why state attorney general races are getting so much of its attention, not just in Nevada, but across the country.

First, the joke is that “AG” stands for “almost governor” in the 43 states where they are elected, as many go on to higher elected office. Spending on these races is an investment in the future. Eight current governors and eight current U.S. senators were previously state attorneys general.

“You want to stop people from getting going,” said James Tierney, director of the National State Attorneys General Program at Columbia Law School and the former attorney general of Maine.

Second, attorneys general are charged with bringing consumer protection lawsuits on behalf of their states that that can mean multibillion-dollar judgments against business interests represented by the Chamber.

And perhaps just as importantly, it’s easier than ever for outside groups to operate thanks to the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2010 Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission decision, which knocked aside bans that had existed in 24 states on political spending by corporations and labor unions.

AG races on the radar screen

A national organization called the Republican State Leadership Committee shares the same leadership as the Virginia group that paid for the anti-Miller ads in Nevada and the group counts the Chamber as its biggest supporter.

In 2012, with only 10 seats up for grabs, outside spending groups spent at least $8 million to influence state attorney general races and the top spender was the RSLC, according to a Center for Public Integrity analysis of data from the National Institute on Money in State Politics, state campaign finance filings and Federal Communications Commission records. With 31 states electing an attorney general this year — and nine of those seats open races, with no incumbent — there should be significantly more outside spending.

The RSLC has poured more than $16.6 million in direct contributions and independent expenditures into state attorney general races during the past decade, more than any other group.

And no backer has been more generous than the Chamber. Between 2003 and 2013, the Chamber and its Institute for Legal Reform have donated $15.5 million to the RSLC, according to data from the Internal Revenue Service, three times more than the next largest single donor, the American Justice Partnership.

While the RSLC has also focused on state legislative and other down-ballot races, it’s spent more on attorney general races than any other type of election. That may be due to the fact that the Republican Attorneys General Association was part of the RSLC until they split this year.

With the shift, the RSLC announced it is now planning on increasing its spending in judicial elections. The RSLC declined to discuss with the Center whether it will continue to spend in state attorney general races through its affiliated nonprofit.

Tobacco settlement gets attention

The roots of the Chamber’s interest in attorney general elections can be traced to the massive tobacco settlement of the late 1990s.

“The AGs got the attention of corporate America in a big way,” said Colorado Attorney General John Suthers, a member of the executive committee for the RAGA. “It was a wakeup call. These guys can do more damage to you overnight than a legislature can.”

The Chamber made state attorney general elections a major election priority as part of its broader “tort reform” efforts to limit the size of legal settlements.

A particular concern for the Chamber, and the wide assortment of businesses it represents, has been the arrangement used during the tobacco cases and elsewhere by which trial lawyers offer free legal services up front, with the promise of a cut of potential damages down the road.

Such an arrangement netted trial lawyers in the tobacco case more than $13 billion overall.

“Plaintiffs’ lawyers have made a concerted effort to ally themselves with state attorneys general … to continue to pursue speculative but lucrative litigation against a wide range of industries,” reads a section from a 2013 report by the Chamber’s Institute for Legal Reform on “The Growing State Attorneys General Alliance With Plaintiffs’ Lawyers.”

“Private lawyers have enticed states to bring novel or speculative lawsuits that seek to expand liability rather than enforce existing law,” the report says.

Curtailing such lawsuits was a major impetus for the initial creation of the RAGA in 1999, months after the tobacco settlement was finalized.

When the organization was created, elected Democratic state attorneys general outnumbered their counterparts almost three to one. Currently Democrats hold only a one-seat advantage.

The Democratic Attorneys General Association came into existence three years after the formation of RAGA — the same year RAGA was folded into the RSLC — and while the organizations share many of the same top donors, there are some stark differences in the levels of giving and their overall spending.

The Chamber’s giving to the RSLC, for example, has been more than 100 times greater than its giving to the DAGA from 2003 through 2013.

Tobacco companies, most notably Reynolds American and Altria, have given more than $7.5 million to the RSLC compared to just over $500,000 to the DAGA.

At the same time, trial lawyers have given the DAGA more than $4.5 million in that same time period. That’s $3 million more than they’ve given to the RSLC.

Stealth ads sink candidate

Miller in Nevada isn’t the first candidate to get slammed by a front group backed by the chamber.

Deborah Senn can still remember the morning she first saw an ad sponsored by a group called the Voters Education Committee.

“Who is Deborah Senn looking out for?” a narrator asked, before detailing what the group claimed was a questionable deal Senn made with an insurance company in her former role as the Washington state insurance commissioner.

“I turned on the TV and saw those ads on every single channel,” she said. The committee’s name didn’t ring a bell, and she had no idea who was behind it — the committee hadn’t disclosed its donors to the state.

Senn was running for state attorney general in 2004, and the ad ran less than two weeks before her September primary. The implication that she had a cozy relationship with the insurance industry was ridiculous, she said. Ralph Nader had once praised her as the best insurance commissioner in America, but her lead in the Democratic primary shrank.

The ad had caught her campaign completely by surprise. The Voter Education Committee was compelled by the state to reveal that it had been backed by the Chamber’s Institute for Legal Reform. She blames the ads, and similar ones that aired later, as a decisive factor in her election night loss to Republican Rob McKenna.

“I had a great career in politics, and I got sidelined,” she said.

She was so troubled by the race, and the growing role of money in politics, that she wrote and performed a one-woman play about her experience four years after the race.

Someone who saw the show asked why she hadn’t put up ads in response to the Chamber’s attack, she recalled.

“Well, I didn’t have a million dollars,” she said. “People don’t understand the magnitude of the money. That is the only reason I’m not in office today, it’s just about money.”

Another Chamber front group?

Finding out who is behind negative ad campaigns can be a laborious process.

In Texas’ 2002 state attorney general race, a group called the “Law Enforcement Alliance of America” helped torpedo Democrat Kirk Watson’s chances. Watson filed suit to force the group to reveal its funders.

Watson, now a state senator, still doesn’t have an answer.

But notes from a 2001 LEAA meeting obtained by the Center show that the Chamber provided support for LEAA ads in the 2001 Virginia attorney general race attacking Democrat A. Donald McEachin, who ultimately lost to Republican Jerry Kilgore.

The LEAA, which has also been backed by the National Rifle Association, was also active in 2002 state attorneys general races in Illinois and Kansas. It’s unknown whether the Chamber supported the LEAA’s spending in those races. Both the Chamber and the LEAA declined to respond to numerous phone calls and emails from the Center.

In Texas, Watson’s lawyers are hopeful they’ll have an answer soon to who was behind the 2002 ads. Meanwhile, his opponent in that race, Greg Abbott, is the current Republican nominee for governor.

Rising star

For Miller, the candidate from Nevada, his inclusion last year on a “top 10” list of rising political stars by The Washington Post’s “The Fix” blog, might explain the early interest in his race. Also on the list: four state attorneys general.

Miller’s campaign has called on TV stations to pull the early attack ad, saying that its claims about Miller’s lavish lifestyle are misleading. The information about Miller’s brushes with celebrities are drawn from his personal financial disclosures, but none of the events cited were paid for with public funds.

At the same time, the lawyer for a pro-Democratic PAC in the state has filed a complaint calling on the RSLC-affiliated nonprofit to disclose its donors.

Miller has brought similar complaints against several political nonprofits, including Americans for Prosperity, affiliated with the billionaire brothers Charles and David Koch, so he’s not surprised that he has himself become the target of spending by a dark money group.

But while he has no idea who’s behind the ad, he’s unequivocal in his assessment of what they’re trying to accomplish.

“This is a case where an out-of-state group is trying to buy the Nevada attorney general race,” he said.

Alan Suderman contributed to the reporting for this story.

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