Curse of the super PACs? For the second time in 2013, a group's actions are criticized in special election loss

12/13/2013 03:57 PM

Once again this week, the candidate who got the most “help” from an outside independent super PAC ended up on the short end of a special election for state House seat.

This time it was the Democrats who came away from a 112-vote loss in western Kentucky’s 7th state House District wondering if the efforts of a supposedly friendly super PAC was more hurtful than helpful.

The Kentucky Family Values PAC, which has been active in supporting Democrats for the last several elections, stirred controversy late in the race with radio ads aimed at Republican candidate Suzanne Miles, in which a key claim was not initially backed up . The group’s next round of ads criticized Miles and her family for receiving federal money, which turned out to be crop insurance and agriculture subsidies. Republicans seized on that to deliver the message to the area’s farmers that Democrats were criticizing them as well.

“I heard it every day — ‘Why are you all attacking farmers?’” said Bryan Thomas, campaign manager for Democratic candidate Kim Humphrey of Morganfield. “And I said wait a minute, our campaign hasn’t said a word about farm subsidies. We were never going to use that.”

Thomas didn’t blame the narrow loss on Kentucky Family Values. He said it would be impossible to quantify the group’s effect but he said it was clear that groups like that “don’t understand the demographics of the district.”

“We were going to run a positive campaign. And we felt like that it kind of forced a race into a place where we didn’t want it,” Thomas said.

Craig Varoga, a national strategist who helped form Kentucky Family Values, didn’t return messages Friday seeking comment. Varoga also is a strategist for the Senate Majority PAC, a national independent group that figures to play in Kentucky’s 2014 U.S. Senate race.

‘You don’t have any control’

Democratic Party Chairman Dan Logsdon said he doesn’t believe super PACs have been a net disadvantage and said he didn’t believe super PAC’s ads in Tuesday’s special election was a decisive factor.

But that’s not to say groups have done everything perfectly in recent races.

“I think anybody that’s a part of one of these super PACs needs to talk to people on the ground,” he said, referring to voters, local officials and activists who know the district. “And,” he added, “obviously they need to be responsive to radio stations when they’re asking for back-up.”

While super PACs cannot coordinate their message or strategies with political parties or candidates, they should do their own polling and research to test messages, Logsdon said.

Kentucky Family Values did that at least once with an automated telephone poll testing messages, including about “federal funds … earmarked for Suzanne Miles’ father’s business,” as Pure Politics reported .

That, though, opened the door for Republicans to argue that Democrats were criticizing farmers.

“I would hope anyone who runs a negative ad thinks through the next steps about what’s going to be the counter attack,” Logsdon said.

Perhaps most frustrating for party officials, campaign consultants and candidates is that they don’t have control over a super PAC’s messages, which can sometimes be counterproductive, redundant or even flat wrong.

Democratic Caucus Chairman Sannie Overly likened it to fans getting involved in a basketball game:

Sometimes counterproductive, redundant or wrong

And this has affected both parties.

Earlier this year, the Washington-based Republican State Leadership Committee spent more than $175,000 to help Republican candidate Lyen Crews in an open state House in Woodford County and parts of Fayette and Franklin counties in June.

After Crews lost to Democrat James Kay, Republican Party Chairman Steve Robertson told Pure Politics that it was “tough to break through our own clutter” and that GOP volunteers heard from voters that some of the group’s actions were just too much.

Last fall, Kentucky Family Values ran an ad in an open state House race in far western Kentucky’s 2nd District criticizing Republican candidate Richard Heath, saying that his business “received thousands of dollars in federal subsidies.” It turns out, it was Heath’s brother’s business, as Pure Politics reported at the time .

“It lasted about six hours and got pulled. They had the wrong research,” said Kim Geveden, the Democratic consultant who was working for Democratic candidate Kelly Whitaker against Heath. “Then the Republicans used that to run the ad saying that Kelly Whitaker and her liberal allies were so misleading that the radio stations had to pull the ad.”

Geveden said he would advise Democratic candidates, especially in western Kentucky, to immediately denounce outside spending and challenge their Republican opponents to do the same.

“I think the track record speaks for itself,” Geveden said of the effectiveness in outside groups in state legislative races.

Logsdon, though, said the groups have helped, particularly with get-out-the-vote efforts and phone banks.

“Overall, we’ve seen positive impacts,” Logsdon said.

He also pointed to the ads and mailings Kentucky Family Values did to help incumbent Democratic Reps. Jim Glenn, Terry Mills and Martha Jane King’s races in 2012. And while the group fared well in helping incumbents hang on, its track record in open seats and helping challengers isn’t great. Only two Democrats — Kay and Gerald Watkins of Paducah — have won competitive open-seat House races in the last year compared to five for Republicans.

Thinner majority plans to move forward

Logsdon said the biggest factor in Tuesday’s 7th District race was turnout in Union and Henderson counties, which was hampered by winter weather. Democrats were banking on 30 percent turnout in Union County — a big ask in a mid-December special election. And they nearly pulled off that much with about 27.6 percent turnout.

“And look, they ran a great campaign,” Logsdon said of Miles and the Republicans. “They did a great job of getting the vote out in Daviess County.”

Thomas, Humphrey’s campaign manager, said the five other main factors that hampered turnout and played a key role in the loss were:
1. Being the first election since redistricting, which caused some confusion .
2. Being the first target or Republicans to “hang Obamacare around our neck”
3. The fact that it was an odd-timed special election
4. The influence of Miles’ father, Billy Joe Miles, as well as residual baggage of former Democratic Rep. John Arnold, who resigned the seat in disgrace after allegations surfaced that he sexually harassed legislative staffers.
5. It snowed nine inches the Friday before the election.

Regardless of the reasons, House Democrats limp into Frankfort next week for a two-day caucus retreat with their smallest margin of control since Republicans briefly held the House from 1920-21. They will have 54 members compared to 46 Republicans.

Overly, the caucus chairman, said Democrats will get a chance to air their grievances against the Democratic leadership then:


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