Independent groups that seek to influence elections have spent more than $300,000 over the past five weeks on Oklahoma’s legislative and congressional primary contests.
Since May 19, $300,716 in independent expenditures have been made to influence results in Tuesday’s election, Oklahoma Ethics Commission and Federal Election Commission filings show.
That includes just four groups spending more than $220,000 on a handful of legislative races and five groups spending $79,312 to support three Republican congressmen seeking re-election – U.S. Reps. Tom Cole, Jim Bridenstine and Markwayne Mullin.
Independent expenditures can be made through political action committees or so-called “dark money” groups that are not required to reveal their donors. State and federal laws also allow these groups, which include for-profit and nonprofit corporations, to exceed contribution limits that apply to individuals and others.
Unlike typical contributions, independent expenditures don’t flow directly to a candidate. Instead, they pay directly for campaign ads, mailers and other activities and must be made without the coordination or solicitation of the candidate.
The $221,400 spent on legislative races since mid-May is relatively small compared with the $4.5 million in cash or in-kind gifts donated directly to all state-level candidates so far this year.
Political watchdog groups are critical of the lack of transparency for independent expenditure groups, saying laws allow the groups to channel money into campaigns from unknown outside interests. The groups can make false claims or attacks, and it’s difficult, if not impossible, to determine whether coordination is occurring illegally with an opponent’s campaign, watchdog groups say.
Of the four groups that have made independent expenditures on legislative primary races, an obscure nonprofit called Catalyst Oklahoma spent the most.
The organization, formed in October 2013, has spent $89,120 on advertisements, videos and phone calls in support of three Republican legislative candidates. This includes $17,500 in support of Bob Jack in Senate District 25, $32,500 in support of Julie Daniels in Senate District 29, $10,000 in support of Miguel Najera in the Senate District 21 and $29,120 in support of Tim Downing in House District 42.
The group is registered with the IRS as a 501(c)(4) social-welfare nonprofit and it identifies in its federal filings as a “nonpartisan organization dedicated to the promotion of pro-growth public polices based on the free market principles that are the foundation of a long-term vibrant economy for Oklahoma.”
Charles Sublett of Tulsa, a member of the Oklahoma Council of Public Affairs’ board of trustees, is listed as the president of the group. The organization’s 2014 tax return also names OCPA, a conservative think tank, as a “related tax-exempt organization.”
The tax form lists four contributors who have given $1.35 million, including one who gave $1.15 million, but the names have been redacted.
Little other public information about the group is available outside of three websites listed as projects of Catalyst Oklahoma: okunited.org, okcunited.org and ok4unitedorg.
One of the sites says the group’s goal is to “keep hard-earned money in Oklahomans’ pockets,” advocating “cutting waste on the state level and pushing back against harmful government overreach like Obamacare on the federal level.”
The other groups that have made independent expenditures related to legislative races are the Oklahoma Federation for Children Action Fund ($76,000 in support or opposition to 19 candidates), the State Chamber of Commerce ($45,980 in support of eight candidates) and the National Association of Realtors Fund ($10,274 in support of three candidates).
All but one of the expenditures went to Republican candidates. Most of the spending was made in races for open seats with no incumbent running.
The Oklahoma Federation for Children Action Fund, a school-choice PAC that supports offering vouchers to attend private schools, was the only group to spend money in opposition to candidates. In two races, the group targeted current or former educators who are running on a platform to increase funding for public schools. Catalyst Oklahoma also spent money on those races.
The federation spent about $3,600 in direct mail criticizing Blanchard Public Schools Superintendent Jim Beckham, who is running in the House District 42 Republican primary. It also spent $1,114 in support of his opponent, Downing.
The group also spent $8,040 in campaign literature critical of Jean Oliver, a former high school teacher, while spending $1,860 in support of her opponent, Daniels, in the Senate District 29 Republican primary.
Oliver said the ads she saw included “false information” and “outlandish accusations” and she believes this type of campaigning “just dirties the race.” Daniels’ campaign did not return calls seeking comment.
The federation filed paperwork late Friday showing it spent $521 opposing Marcus McEntire in the House District 50 race; $3,676 opposing Lisa Kramer in the Senate District 25 race, and $801 opposing Mike Mason in the Senate District 45 race.
All three of those Republican candidates have been endorsed by Oklahomans for Public Education, which advocates for more funds for teacher pay and classroom programs.
Some candidates garnering support from the independent expenditures have moved to distance themselves from the efforts.
“Unless it says ‘authorized and paid for by friends of Tim Downing,’ it is not from me,” Downing wrote on his campaign’s Facebook page earlier this month. “I have zero control over people or groups who exercise their freedom of speech to communicate with voters.”
Congressional candidates are also receiving support from outside groups.
Catalyst Oklahoma has spent $58,000 on web video, ads, canvassing and phone banking for U.S. Rep. Tom Cole.
Character is Essential Political Action Committee, which states it is “supporting and defending authentically conservative candidates,” and the Senate Conservatives Fund have spent $21,250 in support of U.S. Rep. Jim Bridenstine.
The National Rifle Association of America Political Victory Fund has spent $190 in support of U.S. Rep. Markwayne Mullin.