IE’s in Down Ticket Races IE’s: Fair Campaigning or Dirty Tricks? by Dotty LeMieux

By at June 2, 2011 | 5:37 pm | Print

IE’s in Down Ticket Races IE’s: Fair Campaigning or Dirty Tricks? by Dotty LeMieux

The New Kid in Town, IE’s in Down Ticket Races
IE’s: Fair Campaigning or Dirty Tricks?
By Dotty LeMieux

Some people consider them dirty campaigning; others couldn’t do without them.  Most everyone has seen their work, but few outside the political world know who or what they are.

What am I talking about?  Independent Expenditure Committees, or “IE’s,” groups who run ads or send mail in support of or opposition to a candidate for elected office.

Most notorious are the 527 groups (named for the IRS Code that governs them), such as the notorious Swift Boaters who helped derail John Kerry’s 2004 Presidential bid.  So effective and so universally derided, were their efforts that “Swiftboating” is now used as a verb meaning trashing a candidate with dubious claims.

Independent Expenditure Committees have long been a staple on the State and Federal  fronts.  They frequently crop up in races which have voter or legislator imposed campaign contribution limits.  There are no expenditure limits for these committees, which often engage in negative campaigning under a civic minded sounding name like Citizens for Good Government.

Although subject to disclosure rules, IE’s that flout the law are seldom called to task by overworked bureaucrats or local District Attorneys.

IE’s in local races:

Lately, IE’s have begun showing up on the local level, in non-partisan races for County Supervisor, City Council and even special district seats.  In a recent California Supervisor race I handled in Sonoma County, IE’s accounted for an impressive $250,000.  My candidate was supported by unions and local environmental groups, while her opponent benefited from business and development interests.

The benefits of IE’s in a local County Supervisor Race:

For my candidate, it was important not to go negative. She was a first time candidate running against a former mayor of Santa Rosa, the County Seat.  We carefully crafted our message to highlight her strengths, a background in social services and senior issues.

When the first IE’s started showing up, the challenge was to know how to react to them, both the ones on our behalf and the ones favoring the opponent.

Since no contact is allowed between IE’s and candidates, coordination was impossible. We suspected the unions would send some negative mail against the opponent but we couldn’t count on it. Nevertheless we kept to our positive messaging, even in the face of a barrage of negative developer funded mailers and TV spots in which the opponent berated my client.

The unions came through with factual pieces highlighting past financing and disclosure improprieties of the opponent as well as letting voters know where the bulk of her contributions came from.

During the campaign, the contribution limits, set at $1000 per contributor, were raised to $2500 to counter the effect of IE’s, something unusual in the district.  Then the limit was raised to $5000 once a negative IE hit.  A new disclosure requirement forced IE’s to name the largest contributor to the piece.

Still, outspent by nearly double, my candidate sailed to victory with the help of the union and environmental IE’s and her own positive message.

Examples of IE’s in other California Races:

Here are three short examples of the use of IE’s in other down ticket races in California in the last 5 years.  As you can see, the quality and level of disclosure for these are all over the map.

1.     Mid-sized City Council race
In this City Council, a popular fire chief threw his hat into the race early on, in the hopes of scaring off the competition.  My candidate benefited     from several IE’s put out by the local Firefighters’ Association, describing their negative experiences working under this chief and urging voters not to elect him.
My less well funded candidate easily won his election.

2.             Local water board race:
In a race for the local water board, what can only be called a hit piece appeared the weekend before the election. This piece was a crudely designed cut and paste job filled with lies about my candidate.  It bore only a Southern California postmark, with no identifying features.  With no time to reply, my candidate’s only option was to file charges after the election. Unfortunately, there was no way to track down the offenders, who broke every law of fair campaigning and State disclosure rules.

3.             Hospital Board race:
In a Countywide election for a publicly elected Hospital Board, a poorly designed privately funded IE  drew the voters’ attention to the opponents it meant to ridicule, and was of no help to the candidates it supported.

The point is, these things pop up all the time now in down ticket races, and it makes sense for the candidate to be prepared.

What to do if IE’s crop up in your next Race:

Clearly IE’s are here to stay in down ticket races.  How should you handle them when they crop up in your races?  Here are some tips:

  • Determine whether IE’s are likely in your race. Is there a contribution limit in place?  Are there hot issues involving environmental protection, enacting living wage and similar laws, increasing or slowing down development; bringing in business such as big-box stores or corporate headquarters?  If so, there are liable to be some IE’s in your race.
  • Know who the players are.  Unions are often big spenders in down ticket races.  If your candidate champions social services, a living wage ordinance or similar legislation, you can expect Union support.  In the case of the Sonoma supervisor candidate, we had a pretty good idea of what the Unions would say when we uncovered our opponent’s past campaign improprieties. Knowing this allowed us to stay on message and remain confident the truth would get out to the public.

Other big spenders are developers, business interests and professional groups.  If your candidate is supportive of increased growth or business development, she may receive help from these interests. If she is more supportive of protecting the environment and jobs, she should brace for attacks from these groups.

  • Be prepared for annoyed constituents.  Even though you can’t predict when the IE’s will hit, you can be sure some will show up in voters’ mailbox the same day as your mail.  If the Post office is lax, voters may get multiple pieces in a single day, prompting them to call you with bitter complaints.  Even with the disclosures required on the pieces, many voters blame you for what shows up in their mailbox. All you can do is apologize, while explaining that you have no control over IE’s.
  • Decide whether to react to negative IE’s.  First you should have done your homework on yourself, so you know what is likely to come up.  If the attacks are complete fabrications or gross exaggerations, you may want to issue a denial, followed by a brief statement of the facts, then get back on message.

The worst thing you can do is get flustered and let these attacks throw you off stride and off message.  On the other hand, you can’t ignore a blatant mischaracterization that is in your power to correct, possibly using humor to deflect the attack back on those making it.

Such a ploy worked to good advantage in the Sonoma Supervisor race, with the use of a humorous radio ad that poked fun at the opponent’s tactics while offering a cogent, strong and brief rebuttal by the candidate.

In the San Rafael City Council race, the candidate being attacked by his union, never rebutted the facts, merely accused the Firefighters’ Union of being “unfair.”  With the allegations standing unchallenged, and with a strong positive message from my client, repeated in the mail, by phone and at the door, the former fire chief went down in flames.

IE’s can cut both ways.  You ought to know early on whether they will be used in your campaign.  Look for a tight race, with hot button issues that will bring out the interest groups. Then prepare for help from your allies and attacks from your enemies. With luck and a little help from your friends, you ought to be able to remain above the fray, keep to your positive message and still reap the benefits of any negative information revealed about your opponent.

Dotty E. LeMieux runs GreenDog Campaigns and Communications, a full service consulting firm in northern California. Dotty runs campaigns for State, local and Federal candidates and has experienced first hand the bad andthe good of ie’s in Northern California.She has been successful in crafting winning messages for “underdog” grassroots campaigns. Dotty LeMieux has been called a “grassroots maven” by Christine Pelosi, author of Campaign Boot Camp. Dotty can be reached at  del@greendogcampaigns.comThis e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it

GreenDog Campaigns, 8 Willow Street San Rafael, CA 94901  415-485-1040 end_of_the_skype_highlighting www.greendogcampaigns.com

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