The political playing field changed dramatically this past fall thanks to a change in the state’s campaign finance law.
Jay Surdukowski, an attorney with Sulloway & Hollis in Concord, took a look at how an opinion by the New Hampshire Attorney General that essentially allows individuals to contribute an unlimited amount to independent political organizations, giving rise to the New Hampshire super PAC. Surdukowski examined the issue in a recently edition of the NH Bar Journal.
Outside groups have always existed and had influence in elections, but before a Supreme Court decision last year, individuals could contribute no more than $5,000 to independent political groups. Now, individuals can contribute as much as they want to these so-called independent groups.
“It really sort of upends things and puts politics on its head in this state,” Surdukowski said. “It fundamentally alters how campaigns are organized and paid for.”
The proliferation of outside groups, specifically groups termed super PACs, made a big impact on elections last year. In fact, more than 80 percent of the money spent on the governor’s race in New Hampshire last fall was spent by super PACs, as opposed to the candidates’ campaigns themselves.
With elections every two years and the state holding a swing state status, residents should probably get used to super PAC influence.
In the record $23 million gubernatorial race last year, it was sort of a tale of two campaigns. On the one hand, Gov. Maggie Hassan benefited from Super PAC ads at a time when her own campaign coffers were running dry.
“These super PACs came in when she was running on fumes, and really defined [Ovide Lamontagne] right out of the box, painted him into the social conservative corner,” Surdukowski said. “You try to define your enemy before you define yourself. She had no capacity to do that at that point. That was a lifesaver for her ... and I don’t think Ovide ever recovered.”
Lamontagne dealt with a different situation. In his case, super PACs spent heavily to bring Hassan down, but their ads were ineffective in many cases — and there was nothing he could do about it.
A big super PAC mailer criticized Hassan for not paying property taxes on a house she doesn’t own.
Hassan and her family live in a home on the grounds of Phillips-Exeter Academy, where her husband is the principal. The school owns the home and the principal is required to live there.
“It just seems frustrating that that much money is coming in, and [if you’re the candidate who is supposed to be benefiting from the ads] maybe you agree with the message, and maybe you don’t,” Surdukowski said.
Republican and Democratic PACs both spent about $8 million total in the gubernatorial race.
“There is a lot of anxiety on both sides of the aisle, about what that could mean,” Surdukowski said. “In theory, could outside groups go and just buy a governorship or buy a Senate seat? If they really wanted to spend really big bucks, they could just completely swamp the fundraising.”
Surdukowski noted in his article the first real super PAC influence in New Hampshire came from a somewhat unexpected place: New Hampshire Republicans for Freedom and Equality PAC.
The organization received an unprecedented $100,000 donation from Paul Singer, a New York hedge fund founder, mega-donor to President George W. Bush, Mitt Romney and the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth.
“It’s interesting to see who is playing and why,” Surdukowski said.
The only stipulation in the new political world is that super PACs cannot coordinate with campaigns and vice-versa. What constitutes coordination is something that’s likely to get a lot of attention. Surdukowski said it’s a tricky area of the law.
“A lot of this is unchartered territory,” Surdukowski said. “I think we should expect to see an evolution on what coordination means.”