Secretive groups spend millions to influence state elections

Reity O’Brien

Of the millions of dollars worth of ads aired in Kansas’ competitive gubernatorial race, most have not been paid for by the campaigns of Gov. Sam Brownback, a Republican, or his Democratic opponent, Paul Davis.

Instead, two vaguely named entities have dominated television airwaves there, spending more than $3 million to saturate commercial breaks from Topeka to Wichita with roughly 7,000 ads that boosted or bashed the incumbent governor.

Who funds these groups remains largely a mystery. The groups, nonprofits exempt from paying taxes, are not required to disclose their donors in Kansas and most other states.

One group called the Alliance for Freedom, a Virginia-based conservative nonprofit, sponsored ads touting Brownback’s accomplishments as governor. Kansas Values Institute, a group run by two former Republican state legislators but backed in part by a teacher’s union, began airing ads attacking Brownback’s record on education and economic policy soon after the August primary election. Neither group responded to requests for comment.

Four years ago, the last time Brownback ran, no such groups purchased ads in the governor’s race in Kansas, and only $713,000 was spent on TV ads overall. This cycle, non-disclosing groups paid $3.3 million of the $6.3 million spent on ads run in the state so far. And Kansans have seen more ads for state-level elections produced by these secretive groups than voters in any other state.

Since 2010, a year when the U.S. Supreme Court’s Citizens United vs. Federal Election Commission decision loosened restrictions on third-party political spending, such secretive groups have gained traction in state politics even beyond Kansas.

Read more