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Capital Beat: Disavowing corporate campaign handouts

  • Sen. Dan Feltes of Concord introduces Executive Councilor and Democratic gubernatorial candidate Colin Van Ostern during a house party for Van Ostern in Hopkinton on Wednesday, Aug. 24, 2016. (ELIZABETH FRANTZ / Monitor staff) Elizabeth Frantz

Monitor staff
Published: 2/29/2020 10:12:56 PM

Early in the race, Molly Kelly’s campaign moved quickly to attack.

Near the start of the 2018 Democratic primary for governor, the Kelly campaign launched a strike against her rival Steve Marchand on a hot-button issue for Democrats: corporate money.

Kelly had taken the “People’s Pledge,” meaning no corporate donations to her campaign. Marchand said he had taken the pledge too, but his filings said otherwise: $13,000 of his donations had come from corporations.

Kelly demanded that Marchand give the money back. After a short round of negative press, Marchand did just that.

The rest is familiar history. Kelly won the party nomination, but lost to incumbent Chris Sununu – who decidedly did not take the pledge. The Marchand campaign finance reversal became a footnote to the overall story of the primary.

But this year, the fight is happening again: A Democrat running for governor is blasting a competitor for taking money from limited liability companies.

And against the backdrop of prominent Democratic presidential candidates swearing off corporate donations, campaign operatives are hoping this time that it’ll make more of a difference.

After a New Hampshire Public Radio report revealed that Sen. Dan Feltes had accepted donations from limited liability companies – and has since returned it – his competitor Andru Volinsky went on the attack.

The Volinsky campaign has said Facebook ads claiming that Feltes was not taking corporate money were misleading.

The Feltes campaign said it returned the donations before the ads ran.

With the next campaign finance filing deadline all the way in June, the public won’t know for sure for months.

But the skirmish strikes at a bigger pattern. Taking a stand against corporate money is easy to do, especially for a Democratic candidate. Actually resisting that money as you build up a campaign is a taller order.

And this cycle, no one’s hands are squeaky clean.

The roll-over game

Let’s start with Feltes. The state senator from Concord has accepted LLC money throughout his political career, whether running for state senate, preparing to launch his gubernatorial campaign early last year, or in the race for governor.

Recently, Feltes has indicated that he’s had a change in heart.

As NHPR first reported, the campaign says it has returned the LLC donations given since he launched his campaign.

A spokesperson told the Monitor the final amount returned was $8,200, donations that spanned 18 total contributions among 12 LLCs. A number of those donations had come from Ben Kelley, the campaign’s treasurer; those donations have been returned.

But the campaign is not returning any of the donations it received before the senator announced his campaign – back when contributions were made to the “Friends of Feltes” political committee.

That means thousands of dollars of LLC contributions will not be returned – whether from the 2020 cycle or the 2018 cycle – which collectively helped boost Feltes’s $500,760 total haul in December.

The Feltes campaign carried forward $16,188 from the 2018 cycle to kickstart their 2020 cycle fundraising – some of which included LLC donations.

Translation: The senator may not be taking corporate donations now, but he is benefiting from his decisions to do so before.

Volinsky is in a similar boat. The executive councilor took the anti-corporate money pledge in early 2019. But he also rolled forward $45,302 from his Executive Council campaign in 2018, which included thousands from LLCs.

In New Hampshire politics, none of this is out of the ordinary. Campaigns frequently roll over previous fundraising into future races, giving them a crucial early head start to get an organization off the ground.

But this cycle, even as Democratic candidates seek to distance themselves from the tactics of the past – taking on a candidate like Sununu who hasn’t taken the pledge can be more than a challenge.

“People all across the country are increasingly concerned about the influence of corporate money in politics,” said the Feltes campaign in a statement last week.

“...That is why we decided we would not accept corporate contributions and we have returned any and all such contributions received to date in this campaign,” the Feltes campaign said.

Volinsky agreed.

“Since Sununu has raised obscene amounts of money from corporate and LLC entities, anyone who’s serious about challenging him must make the sharpest contrast possible with the GOP’s self-dealing ways,” Volinsky wrote. “On September 8th, voters must choose a nominee who can competently call out Sununu’s corruption, not emulate it.”

A chilling effect?

Sununu has an entirely different mentality towards corporate donations. The governor has taken a much different tack, welcoming LLC money as a form of free political speech and using it to pad out a formidable $846,709 total fundraising haul.

In the last reporting cycle alone, Sununu had amassed at least $134,000 in LLC contributions, according to a Monitor review.

The governor also put an end to a bill to increase transparency around the LLC contributions, vetoing legislation that would have required LLCs to disclose their identity, address, and members. At present, that information is not required, allowing donors to make contributions on top of individual contributions that are hard to track back to them.

In his veto message for Senate Bill 156 last year, Sununu said the law would discourage LLCs from donating and have a “detrimental effect on business.”

“This compelled disclosure would chill LLCs and their members from exercising their First Amendment rights,” Sununu wrote.

Sununu’s acceptance of the funds came under attack from the Feltes campaign, which paid particular attention to contributions from pharmaceutical and insurance companies.

But as the issue heats up among his rivals, Sununu has stood by that stance.

Asked whether he would stop accepting LLC contributions himself; whether he was concerned about donors using them to stay anonymous; and whether he thought the electorate would object, Sununu spokesman Ben Vihstadt kept it brief.

“To answer your three questions: No, no, and no,” Vihstadt wrote in an email.

A question of voter interest

As campaigns chug across the country, one advocacy organization is cheering them on. End Citizens United is is a Democratically-aligned advocacy organization pressing politicians at the state and federal level to reject corporate donations.

ECU was one of the advocacy groups that influenced Feltes to take the pledge and return his donations, according to the Feltes campaign.

And they have a strong track record nationally: Of the 40 U.S. House seats flipped by Democrats in 2018, 27 were flipped by Democrats that pledged away corporate donations.

And in Congressional races, the method is helping generate more in fundraising: Of the group of House Democrats defending the most competitive seats, those who have sworn off corporate money are raising more than their Democratic peers who haven’t, according to the ECU.

To the organization, it’s primarily a matter of principle.

“Anytime a leader rejects corporate special interest money, it’s a win for the people,” said Patrick Burgwinkle, a spokesman for End Citizens United. “Government should be responsive to its citizens, not corporate special interest donors and big money.”

But it’s also partly effective election strategy, Burgwinkle says. Candidates that can take to a podium and talk up their purity on refusing corporate money can sometimes gain an edge, he argued.

“Rejecting corporate special interest money sends a powerful message to voters about who someone will fight for in once in office and grassroots supporters are energized by candidates who are committed to changing a rigged system,” Burgwinkle said.

The issue has certainly shot into the spotlight in the presidential election; progressive candidates like Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren have made a campaign issue out of their decisions to reject donations from corporations and political action committees – and in Warren’s case, drawn criticism when reversing that decision.

Still, for all the attention on the Democratic side over the donations, one question looms in New Hampshire. Will voters actually notice?

Those on the opposite side of the political spectrum like Sununu are placing their bets on a simple answer: no.

“This is a more significant issue in the Democratic primary than in the general election,” said Mike Dennehy, a Republican strategist and partner at Dennehy & Bouley, a Concord-based lobbying orgnization. “In a general election, voters simply won’t care if a candidate is abiding by all laws and regulations.”

And Dennehy – whose lobbying shop is an LLC itself – argued the aversion to using those contributions is misguided, calling LLCs “the backbone of New Hampshire’s small business community.”

“Realistically, to run a competitive campaign one must use raise the most money one can while abiding by all campaign laws and regulations,” he said. “This includes the ability to raise money from small businesses and LLCs.”

Either way, as both Democratic gubernatorial candidates turn their fire on the governor in the next seven months, the battle over corporate contributions is not going away soon.

(Ethan DeWitt can be reached at 369-3307, edewitt@cmonitor.com, or on Twitter at @edewittNH.)



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