Double the Money:

Political parties and a campaign finance no-man’s land

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UPDATE (10/23/13): Since this post was originally published, the San Diego County Democratic Party has begun investing in member communications. As of October 23, the party had spent $60,435.40 on member communications. The Republican Party of San Diego County had spent $81,038.45.

San Diego’s political parties are getting into the thick of the fundraising battle in the mayor’s race, spending tens of thousands of dollars on their favored candidates.

But most of that money hasn’t come in the form of cash or in-kind contributions to councilmen David Alvarez and Kevin Faulconer. And none of it has come in the form of independent expenditures disbursed to support the candidates.

Instead, the Republican Party of San Diego County is spending tens of thousands of dollars in a push to educate its party members and persuade them to vote.

According to reports on file with the California Secretary of State, the county Republican committee has spent more than $61,000 on “member communications expenditures” on Faulconer’s behalf.

Those communications can include pamphlets and direct mailers to party members.

The purpose of these expenditures is to allow political parties and other membership-based organizations such as labor unions and certain professional associations to communicate their political priorities to their members.

An attractive vehicle

They are exempt from the $20,000 per-election limit for campaign contributions. But unlike most forms of political expenditures, the parties can coordinate member communications with candidates.

“As long as they’re communicating in some way with their members, it’s allowed,” said Brian Adams, a professor of politics at San Diego State University, in an interview with inewsource.

As such, these expenditures occupy something of a campaign finance “no man’s land”–in some ways adopting the best of both worlds: the lack of limits of independent expenditures and the coordination of campaign contributions.

This makes them an attractive vehicle for political parties in the heat of an election season.

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“It’s very common now because there aren’t any hard limits on that kind of money that parties can spend communicating with their members,” said Adams, who has studied campaign finance in local elections.

And unlike most contributions and expenditures of that size, neither the Faulconer campaign nor the county GOP committee is required to disclose the expenditures to the San Diego City Clerk. The county committee only needs to report the communications to the Secretary of State.

Aside from the loose regulations surrounding the expenditures, there are other advantages in communicating with a group’s membership. In particular, party members are prime targets for voter education and get-out-the-vote efforts.

“Of course, party members are more likely to vote typically and they’re more likely to be receptive to the message. So, they’re a way in which to be more efficient with your spending as you’re focusing on a subset of the population that’s more likely to be active and more likely to be responsive to whatever message you’re saying,” said Adams.

Just getting warmed up

Tony Krvaric, chairman of the San Diego County Republican Party, struck a similar tone in an interview with inewsource.

“It does allow our candidates to spend their resources more efficiently,” said Krvaric. “We have a very limited, specific task and that is to deliver Republican votes to Republican-endorsed candidates.”

Krvaric said that traditionally, the county Republican Party has had to be more aggressive in this type of electoral field work than its Democratic counterpart.

“The Democratic Party can outsource their political work to the labor unions but here, we do a lot of the heavy lifting for our candidates,” Krvaric said.

Despite donating the maximum $20,000 in cash to Alvarez’s campaign two weeks ago, the San Diego County Democratic Party has not engaged in any similar member communications. That could easily change in the month before the Nov. 19 election. The party’s committee reported having nearly $170,000 in cash on hand as of the most recent reporting deadline on Oct. 5. The county Republicans had more than $150,000.

And while the GOP has already spent nearly $61,000 in member communications on behalf of the Faulconer campaign, Krvaric confirmed that at some point, the county party would hit the $20,000-limit for monetary and in-kind contributions as well.

“We’re just getting warmed up,” said Krvaric.

We'll let you know when big things happen.

About Joe Yerardi

Joe Yerardi is an investigative reporter and data specialist at inewsource. To contact him with questions, tips or corrections, email joeyerardi@inewsource.org or call (619) 594-5321.