Sandra Kennedy expected a tough race this fall for a seat on the Arizona Corporation Commission, but the Democrat didn’t expect to get socked with a $1.4 million onslaught of TV ads from a mysterious group that dredged up a past legal dispute.
The race for a seat on the commission to regulate utilities and other businesses rarely attracts campaign ads. Kennedy herself hadn’t purchased any. The group called Save Our Future Now, however, flooded the state’s airwaves with ads running nearly 1,400 times.
“Times are tough in Arizona, but Sandra Kennedy voted to hurt Arizona families. Kennedy voted for higher sales taxes, but she didn’t even pay her own bills,” one ad said. “Kennedy owned a restaurant chain and didn’t pay the rent.”
The ad referenced a royalty infringement suit involving Kennedy and restaurant chain Denny’s Inc. over a franchise that she and her husband owned. Both parties settled the case in 2010.
“It was devastating,” Kennedy said of the ads. “Unbelievable.”
State and federal law do not require the group to publicly disclose its funders because such politicking is not the group’s “primary purpose.” So it’s nearly impossible for Kennedy or other Arizonans to prove who funded the attack ads that helped lead to her loss in November. The group, based in Phoenix, did not respond to the Center for Public Integrity for comment.
Save Our Future Now is just one of 40 nonprofit groups that together spent an estimated $25 million to buy TV ads about 2014 state-level elections while keeping their donors secret, according to a Center for Public Integrity analysis of data from media tracking service Kantar Media/CMAG.
That’s a small piece of the more than $850 million spent on TV ads in all state elections overall in the 2014 cycle. However, the number of ads from such groups — and the proportion they made up in political advertising for state contests — nearly doubled from levels in 2010, the last year in which a comparable number of state-level offices were in play.
Such groups often appeared to have outsized influence on races from governor down to state senator this cycle. Most of them were successful, far more so than independent political groups overall: these secretive nonprofits either backed a winning candidate or, in the majority of cases, bashed the loser in 63 percent of the races in which they sponsored TV ads tracked by Kantar Media/CMAG. By comparison, all independent groups, including those that disclose their donors, were successful just under 50 percent of the time.
And overall 51 percent of election advertisers, including candidates and political parties, on the state level were successful, according to the Center for Public Integrity’s analysis.