PACs aim to build congressional rivals' name recognition

Honolulu Star Advertiser

Back in February, during a 10-day trip to the islands to research the state's political climate, Jon Soltz, founder and chairman of VoteVets.org, decided he would make Hawaii's 1st Congressional District race one of the top three nationwide by which his organization would try and get an Iraq War veteran into Congress.

Polling showed a crowded field of a half-dozen candidates, with state Senate President Donna Mercado Kim in the lead at 31 percent, followed by state Rep. Mark Takai, a lieutenant colonel in the Hawaii Army National Guard who deployed to Iraq in 2009, next at 21 percent.

Soltz saw a path to victory in trying to go after the 21 percent who were undecided at the time. The key would be name identification.

"All we did was put money in there to build up the name ID," Soltz said in a recent telephone interview. "They've got to play the battle, but until we build up their name ID and they're in the race nothing else really matters."

As the primary neared, VoteVets ran $175,000 in television commercials that described Takai as the natural successor to late U.S. Sens. Daniel K. Inouye and Spark Matsunaga, both decorated World War II veterans.

Takai finished with 44 percent of the vote, followed by Kim at just 28 percent.

It was a familiar strategy. VoteVets previously spent $300,000 in helping raise U.S. Rep. Tulsi Gabbard's name recognition in her runaway 2012 primary race against Mufi Hannemann.

"I think the role that VoteVets played in both races was big," Soltz said. "We wouldn't have touched them if we weren't confident that our candidates could win. I just think that in both these races, what was needed was name ID."

Now, having shown its willingness to enter Hawaii, along with a working knowledge of island-style politics, VoteVets is poised to continue its support of Takai in his general election contest against Republican Charles Djou.

Although both Takai and Djou are veterans — Djou is a major in the U.S. Army Reserve who deployed to Iraq in 2011-2012 — Soltz notes that VoteVets' 400,000 online members are mostly progressives who back Democratic candidates.

Djou and Takai are seeking to replace U.S. Rep. Colleen Hanabusa, who gave up the seat she has held since 2010 to unsuccessfully challenge U.S. Sen. Brian Schatz.

Djou could prove to be a more formidable opponent.

He already held the seat for seven months in 2010 after winning a three-way special election in May of that year to fill the vacancy created when Neil Abercrombie stepped down to run for governor. That race also featured former Congressman Ed Case, who split the Democratic vote with Hanabusa and allowed Djou to take the seat with 39 percent of the vote. Hanabusa won the seat that November and held it until stepping down this year.

Aside from previous experience, Djou heads into the campaign with $440,000 in cash on hand, according to the latest filings with the Federal Election Commission. Although Takai raised $686,000 through July 20, he used much of it against Kim in their Democratic primary, leaving him with just $165,000.

That's where outside groups come in.

Under the law, so-called super PACs (political action committees) are allowed to spend an unlimited amount in independent expenditures to advocate election or defeat "of a clearly identified candidate" as long as there are no direct candidate contributions and there is no coordination between the super PAC and any candidate or party. An independent expenditure committee can also receive an unlimited amount of money from donors as long as there is no coordination between them.

Such groups have played in Hawaii before.

In 2010, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee and the National Republican Congressional Committee, both organizations that work to get their party members elected to Congress, waged a particularly nasty fight.

The DCCC spent about $314,000 on campaign ads and outreach against Djou heading into the May special election before pulling out because of frustration over local Democrats' inability to unify behind a single candidate. The NRCC spent about $350,000 in October alone in outreach against Hanabusa.

Robert Jones, West regional political director for the NRCC, said Djou is in good shape heading into November, and his organization will keep a close eye on the race.

"If you would've told me that we would have a candidate who has almost universal name ID and over half a million dollars against a first-time federal candidate who now probably has zero dollars, I think we're in a really great place," Jones said. "I think on top of that we have the benefit of, basically, Democrats in Hawaii divided and the Republicans are united behind (GOP gubernatorial nominee) Duke Aiona and I think they're going to be behind Charles Djou as well."

DCCC Chairman U.S. Rep. Steven Israel, D-N.Y., who supported Takai in the primary, has not yet said his organization would be jumping in to help him in the general.

The seat is enticing to both sides, with Democrats looking to hold onto the seat in deeply blue Hawaii and Republicans aiming to steal a seat in President Barack Obama's boyhood home.

For their part, the candidates said they did not know what impact outside money would have on the race.

"I have not coordinated with any outside groups," Djou said. "I also have no idea what kind of outside groups may or may not help me or come in against me. I can speak more generally, however, that this increased influence by third-party mainland money is unhealthy for our democracy and I think corrodes the overall integrity and trust in our elections and I think has been a negative consequence of modern politics."

He called third-party money "instrumental" in helping Takai prevail in the primary.

Takai said he did not think the outside money played a critical role, noting that supporters he talked to were more prone to bring up his own TV commercials than the ones by VoteVets.

"I'm sure that VoteVets played a role, but I wouldn't say they were the reason why we won the primary," Takai said. "We developed a plan without assuming any outside expenditures ether way, and that's all we can expect.

"So we have our game plan ready based on just what we need to do. What happens outside is just beyond our control."

One congresswoman who has seen how outside money can affect a race is U.S. Rep. Tammy Duckworth, D-Ill., who also was supported by VoteVets.

Duckworth, who is supporting Takai and was a classmate with him at the University of Hawaii, was outspent in her 2012 campaign 13-to-1 by outside money.

"But a lot of those outside groups were pretty nasty and pretty partisan," she said in a telephone interview from Washington, D.C. "I think that what VoteVets does is they come in and they really talk about the person.

"They send a pretty positive message and talk about the person's values and why that person is a good, progressive choice who's also a veteran, and I think that outside money helps amplify your voice."

John Hart, chairman of the communications department at Hawaii Pacific University, said Djou's main challenge will be money, and trying to attract private sources of funds with mainland Republicans keyed on taking control of the U.S. Senate.

"They have the House," Hart said. "They are not going to lose the House. So it's going to be very difficult for Charles to make the case for House money. Not that he can't do it and not that he won't do it, but I think that that will be a challenge for his campaign."

Founded in 2006, VoteVets began as a standard PAC to give maximum donations to veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Later that year, it ran attack ads against Republicans who were voting against body armor for military members, becoming a super PAC and making more independent expenditures.

Since its inception, VoteVets has raised and spent more than $30 million advancing veterans' issues and helping to elect veterans from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The group already has shown it is not afraid to jump into a race even if the prospects appear bleak to others.

In 2012, VoteVets entered the Gabbard-Hannemann race early, when Gabbard was trailing by double digits and still had very low name recognition. The ads in support of her were name ID commercials that helped raise her profile, although the group sent out fliers against Hannemann in the waning days of that campaign to reinforce the negatives attached to his candidacy.

Soltz called the spending in the 2012 race more "transformative" in the sense that once VoteVets entered the race others wound up chasing their message.

"The other outside money that followed the VoteVets money was only because we put her into the race," Soltz said.

VoteVets already is starting to look at the Takai-Djou contest to see where it can help. "We'll start looking at numbers and seeing where we think this race is," Soltz said. "If Mark needs name ID, if Mark needs support — we'll certainly be looking to play a role in this race."

Hart said he would expect more groups to jump in if polls or other research indicate a winnable contest.

"Races cost money," he said. "Polling data, advisers, computer programs, advertisements, all the signs, media buys — all this costs money.

"It doesn't necessarily mean … automatically that he or she who has the most money wins. But it's certainly the case that you've got to have a certain amount of money to get your case across, and in a race that is close, getting your message out there makes a difference."

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