This November’s election will decide who controls the Washington state Senate. Democrats are desperate to win back the majority while a mostly-Republican coalition, that took power last year, is determined to hold on.
In the meantime, big money interests on both sides are trying to influence the outcome. They’re pouring unlimited contributions into political action committees controlled by the legislative caucuses.
Targeting a 'maverick' senator
Washington Senate Democrats have several targets this year. But the most personal contest might be the race in the 35th district, which includes Mason and parts of Kitsap and Thurston counties. This contest pits longtime Democratic Senator Tim Sheldon, D-Potlatch, against another Democrat, Irene Bowling of Bremerton.
Sheldon runs a family tree farm on a hillside above Hood Canal near the town of Potlatch. On a recent tour of the property, Sheldon, wearing suspenders and boots, was clearly king of his hill. He pointed out a stand of trees he plans to selectively log in the coming months. “They’re real tight grain Douglas Fir that will make really nice lumber,” Sheldon said.
But when he leaves his gated property, Sheldon has a political target on his back. Long known as a “maverick” Democrat, he joined with Republicans in January of 2013 to help them take control of the Washington Senate. Now, Democrats are determined to take Sheldon out this November.
And they’ve just shown how serious they are. After the August 5 primary, the Senate Democrat’s political action committee -- called the Kennedy Fund -- transferred $250,000 dollars into another PAC. This one called “Real Representation in the 35th” and set up for the exclusive purpose of defeating Tim Sheldon and electing Bowling.
“They lost the majority, they want it back,” acknowledged Sheldon, who benefited in the primary from heavy PAC spending by business interests.
For her part, Bowling said she had no idea Senate Democrats were about to dump that kind of money into the district. “We found out about it through the newspaper, basically,” the first-time candidate said.
Bowling wasn’t supposed to know. State law prohibits independent expenditure campaigns from coordinating with candidates. Now that she does know, Bowling’s pleased. “Because it shows that there’s real faith that we can beat Tim Sheldon,” she said in a telephone interview.
PACs as 'tactical weapons'
It also shows something else. Over the past 20 years, Washington’s legislative caucuses have become sophisticated political operators. Today, all four of the caucuses -- House and Senate, Democrats and Republicans -- operate traditional campaign committees. These funds can spend directly in support of candidates, but are subject to strict campaign contribution limits.
These caucus committees also have “associated” political action committees. State law restricts how PACs can spend money, but they are allowed to accept unlimited contributions.
“These political action committees are essentially tactical weapons,” former Washington Democratic Party chairman Paul Berendt said.
The PACs are allowed to spend money on polling, identifying voters, getting out the vote and on independent mailers and advertisements in specific races, as long as there’s no coordination with the candidates. Berendt said the PACs give the legislative caucuses a legal way to work around contribution caps. “This is allowed under the law and as long as it is, this is what you’re going to see these campaign organizations do,” Berendt said.
Follow the money
The big checks that flow into these caucus PACs often come from special interests. For instance, the $250,000 that went in the 35th district came from the Senate Democrats’ Kennedy Fund.
The single biggest contributor to the Kennedy Fund was the Service Employees International Union. SEIU and its locals plowed $200,000 into the Kennedy Fund in June and July. SEIU would not comment for this story.
Other large contributors include the Community Health Network of Washington, the Washington Education Association and Washington tribes.
Senate Democratic leader Sharon Nelson, D-Maury Island, helps raise money for the Kennedy Fund. Spending decisions are made by a separate board for legal reasons. Nelson rejects the suggestion that a union like SEIU is “buying” influence with its large checks.
“I would not use the term ‘buying.’ I think what they’re saying is they support the kind of policies that Democrats promote,” Nelson said.
Senate control motivates one donor group
It’s not just Democrats who are reeling in large checks from traditional allies.
The Leadership Council is the name of the Washington Senate Republicans’ political action committee. In July, it got $50,000 from the Farmers (Insurance) Employees and Agents PAC. That same month the Washington Restaurant Association PAC hand-delivered a $40,000 check.
“It is an unusual contribution from us and it’s a significant contribution for us,” said Bruce Beckett, the Restaurant Association’s head of government affairs. Beckett said his group ponied up big this year because control of the Washington Senate is on the line.
The check was handed over at a private dinner with Senate Republican Leader Mark Schoesler.
“We delivered it personally to Mr. Schoesler because, obviously, it was a fairly substantial amount,” Beckett explained.
By law, PAC donors can’t earmark their contributions. But Beckett said he hopes the money is spent in battleground districts. He acknowledged that could mean the money is spent on what PACs have become famous for -- negative ads.
“And that always makes us a little bit nervous cause then in some respects those who are funding it get blamed for that, but I guess that’s a risk that comes along with being a part of the process,” Beckett said.
In a statement, Senate Republicans said they rely on “the financial support of a diverse coalition” of donors to “win tough races.” Democrats and Republicans in the Washington House also have their own soft money accounts: the Truman and Reagan funds.
So far, combined, all four legislative caucus PACs have taken in more than $4 million this year -- with the Senate Republican Leadership Council getting the most.