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Disclosing names of 'issue ad' donors a wedge within the MI GOP

It's Just Politics with Zoe Clark and Rick Pluta

This week we saw yet another split in the Republican Party. But this intra-party fight had little to do with the usual Tea Party v. Establishment narrative. Instead, the imbroglio was over “issue ads.” Or, to be even more specific: disclosure of who is paying for issue ads.

Issue ads can sound and look an awful lot like campaign ads but they don’t directly or explicitly endorse a candidate by saying “vote for Candidate X” or “oppose Candidate Y.” It’s these magic little words – “vote,” “elect,” “support,” – that make a political ad a political ad.

But issue ads can say Candidate X did a horrible thing or Candidate Y is an amazing person. Take for example this ad from the 2010 Republican Gubernatorial Primary: “Raising taxes in this economy is crazy. But that’s what Congressman Pete Hoesktra wants to do… Call Congressman Hoesktra and tell him raising taxes is crazy.” Language like that makes it an issue ad. It says “call Congressman Hoekstra” but it doesn’t specifically say how to vote.

Currently, in Michigan, there are no rules that say that the people and the groups that fund issue ads have to reveal themselves. Only donors to ads that have a specific “vote for” message have to be made public.

If they don’t have those magic words, they’re considered “educational” and aren’t subject to the rules of political advertising. But Michigan Secretary of State Ruth Johnson says that’s window dressing; that they’re simply thinly veiled political ads and people should know who’s paying for them.

So, yesterday morning, Johnson announced new disclosure rules for issue advertising. “People very much want, support and deserve transparency,” Johnson announced. That announcement was a total surprise. No one really expected that a Republican secretary of state would push for these kind of disclosure rules. In fact, Johnson’s predecessor Terri Lynn Land – also a Republican - opposed this kind of disclosure.

In fact, a lot of Republicans consider support for disclosure of this sort to be a kind of apostasy. They argue that the right to be anonymous is an essential part of free political speech. So much so, that Republicans in the Legislature wasted no time slamming down the lid on these new rules.

There was already a campaign finance bill in the state Senate to increase, double, in fact, donor limits to political campaigns. And, right after Johnson announced the new rules, the state Senate quickly added a provision to that bill that said donors to ads that doesn’t use those magic words can remain anonymous.

Well, this was not awkward at all, no, not at all (sense a bit of sarcasm there?) as the bill sponsor, Republican state Senator Arlan Meekhof and Republican state Senate Majority Leader Randy Richardville ducked and weaved past questions about this last minute add-on. Richardville went as far as to say this is what the United States Supreme Court wanted. “The Supreme Court made the decision that these don’t have to be disclosed and so we codified what the Supreme Court, which is kind of a Supreme voice, has already said,” Richardville told a crowd of reporters.

And, it is true that the Supreme Court has upheld the use of issue ads, even anonymous ones. But, the Court also said that states, if they so choose, can order the names of funders to be disclosed. In fact, the Johnson rules are patterned after Wisconsin’s, which have been litigated and upheld. So, the Legislature does have a choice in the matter.

There are other questions that come up with these new proposed rules: Will Ruth Johnson pay a political price for her stance on disclosure? To seek reelection, she has to be nominated next year at a Republican convention. How will GOP delegates respond to this sort of renegade behavior?

Finally, just to make all of this a little more high school: both sides say Governor Rick Snyder told them he’s on their side. But the Governor’s spokeswoman responded that that’s not quite true; says he likes transparency, but he also supports free speech.

So, guess he wants both. Some of his friends are for it. Some of his friends are against it. Rick Snyder says he’s sticking with his friends

Zoe Clark is Michigan Radio’s Political Director. In this role, Clark guides coverage of the state Capitol, elections, and policy debates.
Rick Pluta is Senior Capitol Correspondent for the Michigan Public Radio Network. He has been covering Michigan’s Capitol, government, and politics since 1987.
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