This summer the tribes have been spending a torrent of cash to keep Democrats in control of the Legislature. Since the start of last year they have pumped $1.1 million into political campaigns in this state, most of it for legislative races, including a whopping $591,000 that has gone straight to the independent campaign funds maintained by the House and Senate Democratic caucuses. Most of that money has come since June. The independent campaign funds play a decisive role in legislative campaigns, paying for the hard-hitting last-minute fliers and nasty attack ads candidates are often unwilling to produce themselves. Those independent campaigns offer one of the few opportunities in state politics for contributions without restrictions. So tribal money has been coming in dollops of $20,000, $50,000 or more.
In fact, the tribal contributions have come so thick and fast that they are entirely responsible for the edge Democrats have this year in their independent-campaign fund-raising. Without it, the Rs would be ahead. Meanwhile, the tribes have given the Republican caucus committees just $15,000. And while there are a smattering of contributions here and there to the odd Republican candidate, it appears the tribes have taken their place at the same table as labor organizations and trial attorneys as leading financiers of the state Democratic party.
Some suspect that the big spending on the legislative races might have to do with the fact that Republicans are mounting a stronger-than-usual campaign for governor this year, making Democratic control of the Legislature a high priority. The imbalance sticks in the craw of state Rep. Cary Condotta, R-East Wenatchee, chairman of the House Republican Organizational Committee, which is coordinating House Republican campaigns.
Condotta notes that just one company, Costco Wholesale, spent $22 million to promote last year’s liquor-privatization initiative – the kind of measure he says might easily have passed a Republican legislature. Yet in the legislative races, a half-million bucks can make a huge difference. “I wish we had a sugar daddy like the tribes somewhere in our pocket. I just can’t believe the business community doesn’t get involved. It’s amazing what a small amount of money can do. You get me $1 million tomorrow and I could get you the majority.”
Direct Contributions Mask Effect
Big tribal spending in Washington elections is nothing new, of course – it began when Indian casinos left tribes flush with cash in the ‘90s. Historically the tribes have spent their biggest money on initiative campaigns, to promote measures boosting Indian casino gambling and oppose those permitting non-Indian competition. Where candidates are concerned, tribal support has gone largely to Democrats – essentially the party in power in this state since the mid-1980s. This year much has been made of what appears to be a slightly unusual pattern – some contributions are going to Republicans, perhaps a few more than usual, both in legislative races and in contests for statewide office. That much can be seen in the records on file with the state Public Disclosure Commission.
But it’s a little hard to see the big picture because there are so many players. Some 23 tribes are members of the state Indian Gaming Association, and then there’s the association itself, which makes contributions through its Campaign for Tribal Self-Reliance. Takes a while to put it all together, as Washington State Wire learned with its spreadsheet analysis. But when you put it all together it doesn’t look like a hedge-your-bet strategy. Truth is, it’s pretty lopsided.
Take the Muckleshoots, the biggest-spending tribe in the state at $300,000 so far this cycle. They have made contributions to 46 Democrats and 11 Republicans in legislative and statewide races. They’re playing both sides in the governor’s race, cutting checks to both Democrat Jay Inslee and Republican Rob McKenna. But contributions to political candidates are limited by law — the max is $3,600 in the gubernatorial race — and by themselves those contributions don’t show a massive tilt. They’ve also made $800 contributions to the Senate Republicans and the House and Senate Democratic hard-money funds, which provide money directly to candidates and where contribution limits also apply.
But actually the spending is a long way from even. Since Jan. 1, 2011, the Muckleshoots have put $115,000 into the House Democrats’ Truman Fund and another $115,000 into the Senate Democrats’ Roosevelt Fund. Not a dollar into Republican soft-money coffers.
Other big tribal contributors to the Democrats’ soft-money campaign committees are the Puyallups, at $110,000, the Nisquallies at $50,000 and the Swinomish at $40,000. The Indian Gaming Association has contributed $150,000.
Washington State Wire attempted to contact the association for comment, without luck.
Has an Effect
Certainly the tribes aren’t operating any differently than any other special-interest group. Their spending patterns are a close kin to the labor and trial-attorney organizations that play almost exclusively on the Democratic side of the aisle. Naturally those groups are spending plenty, too, as they do every season. Business generally leans Republican, but the business buck is spread a bit more evenly.
Clearly the tribal money has given the Dems the edge. The Democratic caucuses have raised $1.46 million for their independent campaign efforts; the Republicans, just $1 million.
“Raising money has been a lot tougher this year, and I think it has been on both sides,” Condotta said. “We’re running on par for transfers with the Ds [from candidates’ excess campaign funds], but of course [House Speaker] Frank [Chopp] got a huge boost from the tribes. Without the tribal money we would be for the first time at par with the Democrats, and that’s a big deal. We’ve always been the underdog on spending, and we’ve done well, but with the tribes weighing in, it certainly tips things a little.”
Tim Hamilton, director of the Automotive United Trades Organization, a service-station trade association that has long been critical of the state’s gas-tax deals with Indian tribes, says the tribal interests have been getting their money’s worth at the statehouse. And it’s no wonder they’re willing to pony up. “I don’t have a problem with the tribes or their members,” he says. “But they came to town and saw a for-sale sign on the Rotunda, and they got a phenomenal rate of return. They can turn over $1 million in campaign contributions and get $50 million out of the state treasury each year. Can you blame them? No, I blame the people who put the for sale sign on the building.”