When ‘dark’ brings light: “First Amendment expenditures’ yield school choice victories

When it comes to independent expenditures in American campaigns, policy preferences may drive how one refers to political spending intended to sway voters one way or another on substantive matters.

Those in the national news media and a range of left-leaning advocacy groups who hate comparatively unregulated expenditures have — since the U.S. Supreme Court’s “Citizens United” decision unleashed a torrent of independent spending – dubbed them “dark money.”

Even I have found myself referencing the impact of “dark money” in some local elections where the rhetoric and advertising intensity became highly negative and in which, candidly, I disagreed with the results.

On the other hand, those who embrace the philosophy of Citizens United – as warm an embrace of free speech under the First Amendment as has been rendered in modern American history – are calling permitted independent expenditures “First Amendment money.”

Arguments over money in politics are, like the poor, always with us. To be sure, Citizens United and its progeny seem to have intensified those arguments.

Regardless of your views on the issue, don’t assume that independent expenditures alone determine the outcome of any given race.

In Oklahoma, this year’s best example of a “dark money” fail is easy to peg. In the Republican primary for the U.S. Senate seat being vacated by Tom Coburn, more than $1 million was spent to trash U.S. Rep. James Lankford, R-Oklahoma City, and/or tout former state House Speaker T.W. Shannon.

Themes in that independent spending never caught on, largely because voters found laughable the proposition that Lankford, one of the most ardent fiscal conservatives in the U.S. House, could be characterized as a liberal on the basis of two or three votes during his four years in Congress.

On the other hand, when independent expenditures are rooted in reality, in the actual records of real human beings on issues that matter, they can be a powerful force in modern politics.

Submitted for your consideration: Important gains for supporters of school choice during this 2014 election cycle in the Sooner State.

Scott Jensen, senior advisor at the American Federation for Choice, told CapitolBeatOK that his organization’s state arm, Oklahoman Federation for Choice, spent a total of $150,000 in our state this year.

Of that total, $125,000 went for voter education, while around $25,000 went to conduct and promote a detailed survey of likely Republican primary and runoff voters.

In an interview, Jensen said a high percentage of his group’s statewide expenditure was in the House District 69 race in northeast Oklahoma, where engineer Chuck Strohm, an ardent supporter of school choice and a multi-issue conservative, came from behind to win the Republican nomination (and the election, which drew no Democrats) by 119 votes.

Strohm defeated Melissa Abdo, a local school board member and pillar of the status quo who ran first in the June primary and seemed to have necessary momentum to win in the August runoff.

But after the primary, Jensen said, “We began to educate voters in two areas: her opposition to the Lindsey Nicole Henry special needs program and then her overall fiscal philosophy.

“Of course, we knew from our poll of GOP voters that those most likely to vote in the nomination cycle overwhelmingly support the Henry Scholarships and oppose using taxpayer resources to sue parents of children seeking to access the special needs program.”

Abdo supported a lawsuit targeting parents of special needs children, a move which was dismissed by the state Supreme Court.

Further, she is a plaintiff in an effort to crush the Henry Scholarships on state constitutional grounds. The latter lawsuit is pending in the legal system after an adverse ruling by a district judge.

Abdo’s opposition to the Henry Scholarships program, Jensen said, “was really potent but probably insufficient to defeat her.”

Complicating the picture and giving OFC an opening, however, Abdo was appealing to primary voters as she positioned herself as a fiscal conservative, despite the fact she had, in Jensen’s summary, “endorsed spending hikes and tax increases, and the rally at the State Capitol in conjunction with the teachers’ union.”

In the runoff cycle, Jensen’s group drew attention to Abdo’s ardent anti-school choice views and to certain of her fiscal positions. They also pushed information that her “green energy” business had trumpeted President Barack Obama’s views.

“After we educated voters,” Jensen said, in combination with other efforts it was “sufficient to drag her down to 47 percent.”

As for the techniques used to oppose Abdo, Jensen said his group did four mailings in both the primary and runoff. And, “we did radio advertisements in the runoff, after doing telephones in the primary.”

In five other runoff races – three for Republicans and two for Democrats – OFC sent mailings informing likely voters on the preferred candidates views about school choice and conservative issues. In one of those runoffs, the group also paid for informative radio spots.

In the primary cycle back in June, OFC succeeded in two races — in support of state Rep. Anastasia Pittman as she sought the Democratic nomination for a state Senate seat, and in advocacy for incumbent Republican Sen. AJ Griffin.

To review the results, OFC got its way in these districts:

House District 69, where Strohm will replace departing incumbent state Rep. Fred Jordan (a Republican who opposed school choice).

House District 3, where John Paul Jordan got the GOP nod to replace departing pro-choice incumbent Colby Schwartz.

House District 38, where John Pfeiffer will replace termed-out incumbent Dale DeWitt (a nice fellow who opposed school choice).

House District 61, where Casey Murdock is on track to replace pro-choice incumbent Gus Blackwell.

House District 99, where Rev. George Young is the Democratic nominee as he seeks to replace a pro-school choice incumbent.

House District 89 in south Oklahoma City, where Shane Stone won a close runoff for the Democratic nomination. He will replace termed-out incumbent Rebecca Hamilton.

In the primary cycle back in June, the group was successful in two out of four contests.

To sum up, Oklahomans for Children was six for six in the runoff, and two for four in the primaries.

Not a bad performance for the group’s introductory election cycle in the Sooner State.

And, not terribly surprising in light of the detailed opinion survey of Republican voters on which I reported in last month’s edition of Perspective.

The poll found all existing forms of school choice in Oklahoma have strong popular support. Further, voting citizens are willing to engage in bold experiments to empower parents of children in failing schools to seek better alternatives.

State Rep. Jason Nelson, R-Oklahoma City, told me in September, ““The polling on school choice is real.”

It matches what he hears as he campaigns door-to-door in his own reelection effort in west Oklahoma City. Support for parental choice is increasing because it is an idea whose time has come. It appeals to aspirations for justice, equity and excellence in educational opportunity.

I am blessed to have a wide range of acquaintances and friendships diverse in nature, tested in challenging circumstances and maintained for decades.

I can only say the following words from Rep. Nelson are affirmed in my own experience:

“People who were formerly lukewarm about school choice are now enthusiastic.”  

Each of us, even foes of school choice, is entitled to his or her opinion. When it comes to choice, my views are informed by four decades of reporting and analysis. 

Mounting evidence leads me to reassert what I said just a month ago:

“Republican politicians who defy the remarkable strength for school choice among their most likely voters will sow folly, and reap the political whirlwind. 

They will lose, and deserve to do so.”

Robust expansion of school choice in education is becoming a policy imperative.

Aspiring politicians: Lead, follow, or get out of the way.
This essay is adapted from a commentary in the October 2014 edition of Perspective Magazine, monthly publication of the Oklahoma Council of Public Affairs (OCPA). McGuigan is founder and editor of CapitolBeatOK.com, an online news service, publisher of The City Sentinel newspaper, a certified teacher and the author of hundreds of commentaries and news stories on American education. In 2013, The Washington Post blog, “The Fix” designated him one of the three best reporters in Oklahoma.