ELIZABETHTOWN — American Crossroads, the political action committee co-founded by Karl Rove, a senior official in the George W. Bush Administration, has dipped a toe into the race for New York’s 21st District.
In doing so, the organization has made history.
It marks the first time the powerful group (it spent $300 million during the 2012 election cycle) has entered the fray in a Republican primary, indicating, at the very least, judging by the content of their television ad that began airing on Tuesday in the Albany, Watertown and Plattsburgh media markets, that they are not supporters of GOP hopeful Matt Doheny.
American Crossroads, which is called a “super PAC” because of its ability to raise an unlimited amount of money from individuals from anywhere in the country, sunk $242,000 into a half-minute spot that features ominous, horror movie-type music as it attacks Doheny on several issues, including his past races for the seat, lawsuits and allegations that the candidate, an investment banker from Watertown, violated labor laws.
“It would be a big mistake to send him to Congress,” it concludes before identifying American Crossroads as the organization responsible for the advertisement.
Aside from Doheny, no other candidates or their campaigns were mentioned.
The Doheny campaign was outraged:
“I’m deeply troubled by the mean, personal and, in part, untruthful attacks launched on me by Elise Stefanik’s out of town supporters,” said Doheny in a written statement on Tuesday. “Partisan politics is tough enough, but even more troubling to me is the precedent set today that wealthy Republican donors and a reported ‘fundraising terrorist’ from outside our district have decided that they will choose who the next representative will be from the North Country.”
Doheny is referring to Paul Singer, a billionaire hedge fund manager whose committee, Winning Women, kicked in 41 percent of the campaign contributions reported by Elise Stefanik, Doheny’s opponent in the Republican primary, in the first quarter of 2014.
That sum was $110,917, according to campaign filings. The committee also contributed to several other female Republican congressional candidates in Arizona and Virginia.
The Stefanik campaign is not affiliated with American Crossroads and Singer’s relationship to the candidate is confined to that of donor.
A spokesperson for the Stefanik campaign denied involvement in a written statement to the Valley News on Wednesday afternoon:
“Elise has run an issues focused, positive, grassroots campaign from day one, and will continue to do so. She has stayed positive in all her campaign messaging, unlike her opponent, and her message is resonating with voters all across the North Country," said Charlotte Guyett, campaign press secretary. "If Mr. Doheny doesn’t like the issues raised by a group that used to support him, he should complain to them, not to us. They obviously believe Elise is the strongest candidate to win this seat with new ideas and a fresh direction.”
American Crossroads President and CEO Steven Law also issued a statement:
“Local Republicans are uniting behind Elise Stefanik as the kind of exciting, conservative leader who can win and hold this seat,” he said. “Elise will be a champion for lower taxes, smaller government and dismantling Obamacare.”
In Q1, Stefanik reported a fundraising haul of $268,000. The number of donations at or below $250 was 310.
‘I CAN’T BE BOUGHT’
In his statement, Doheny stressed his connection to the region and the voters.
“Whether you support me or not, everyone knows I can’t be bought,” he said. “People of the 21st Congressional District know me. I’m a mainstream Republican, a proven vote getter who has been vetted by Republicans, Democrats and news organizations throughout the district. Nothing in the ad is new, or news. The fact is as a true son of the North Country, I have the experience, knowledge and resources to win. Most importantly, polling shows our campaign with a commanding twenty point lead over Democrat Aaron Woolf, leaving only one question:
"Elise Stefanik, what is the deal? Who are the donors that are behind your campaign and what have you promised them that is so important that Crossroads would cross a line they have never crossed before?"
Legally, super PACs are forbidden from coordinating with campaigns, said Chris Faricy, an Assistant Professor of Political Science at the Maxwell School of Public Affairs at Syracuse University, in an interview with the Valley News.
“The donor lists are not public, so there's truth to that,” he said. “But the campaigns have ideas who these people are. The parties pass around a list. You have access to their lists. Technically, you don't know the names, but honestly, a campaign manager who doesn't know the names of people who traditionally support you should be fired."
Faricy, who oversaw community outreach for David Fink, a 2002 congressional candidate in Michigan’s 9th District, said Citizens United, the 2010 Supreme Court decision that held that the government cannot restrict political independent expenditures by corporations, associations or labor unions, “blew the ceiling off” of groups like American Crossroads, allowing them to pour outside money into political races.
The Supreme Court’s 5-4 decision gave the green light for corporations and labor unions to spend as much as they want to convince people to vote for or against a candidate.
While it is still illegal for corporations and unions to give money directly to candidates for federal office, Citizens United allowed those entities to spend as much as they want to convince people to vote for or against a political candidate.
It’s a subtle distinction but an important one.
“These folks they try to influence races all over the country,” said Faricy. “There are only so many moderate districts left. As parties have gotten more money, they're not spending on 435 races — they're spending on 15.”
Democrats need 17 seats to retake the House of Representatives this November and the 21st district, which covers 16,000 square miles across parts of 12 counties, is trending increasingly purple.
Incumbent Bill Owens, a Democrat, won the seat by one percentage point in 2012.
In an interview with the Capitol Pressroom’s Susan Arbetter on Tuesday, Stefanik said the district has been a challenge for Republicans since the decisive special election in 2009 after President Obama appointed John McHugh to serve as the Secretary of the Army.
“I think we're looking for someone who can win this district,” Stefanik said. “I'm focused on running my campaign and spreading my message.”
On Wednesday afternoon, the Doheny campaign released a second statement addressing some of the claims in the American Crossroads spot, many of which mirrored Stefanik’s points of discussion with Arbetter.
“Doug Hoffman stayed on the Conservative line and split the vote in 2010,” said the statement. “In 2012, [Doheny] lost by less than 5,000 votes in a district Obama carried by six percent.”
This election cycle, Doheny has the Independence endorsement and Stefanik, the Conservative Party. Both have indicated they will stay in the race if they do not win the Republican primary on June 24.
‘FOCUSED ON THE ISSUES’
“This is the very reason why I feel the need to run for office — it’s a travesty,” Green Party candidate Matt Funiciello told the Valley News when asked about American Crossroads. “They will spend literally millions of dollars. Advertising is what a modern campaign is all about.”
Funciello said he hopes the voters will disregard the outside spending and focus on the issues, which, he said, are the only barometer to judge the candidates as a result of their lack of elected experience — including himself.
“What's in it for them?” he asked, referring to outside donors. “We need the answer. This is where principles come in.”
Reached by phone, Stuart Rosenberg, the campaign manager for Democratic candidate Aaron Woolf, said the candidate was focused on his jobs tour in Lewis County.
"We're just making sure Medicare and Social Security remain intact and our seniors can retire with peace and security,” said Rosenberg. “Our campaign is open and available to anyone in the public who would like to share their ideas. Aaron Woolf is available and accessible. We just think this campaign should be about the issues and that’s what this is all about.”
Registered Republicans will head to the polls on June 24 for the primary. Stefanik, Doheny and Funiciello will meet in Hague at a candidate’s night on Wednesday, June 11. On Thursday, June 12, Doheny and Stefanik will meet for a debate, their second, in Watertown.