THERMOPOLIS – On the evening before the close of the most expensive primary election in Wyoming’s history, the phones of voters across the state began to ring. When someone answered, a pre-recorded message began disparaging a Republican candidate for governor.
The calls came from a group called Wyoming Friends of Coal, which bore the moniker of a group out in West Virginia. Panicked and unsure of where the group had come from, Travis Deti, of the Wyoming Mining Association, began making calls. He contacted the Rocky Mountain Coal Mining Institute, asking if they were behind it. They were not. He then called Friends of Coal themselves, asking if they had expanded their operations into Wyoming. They too, were not involved.
After some research, it turned out the group was not based in Wyoming, Colorado or West Virginia – the group actually had its origins in Washington, D.C., and its sole fiscal backers included some of the top conservative operatives in the nation.
Though the group was involved in the Wyoming campaign only temporarily – and subsequently hit with a cease and desist order from West Virginia – the damage had already been done: Deti could now only contain the damage the calls had caused.
“Nowhere in their biographies do they ever mention Wyoming or coal,” Deti said Wednesday at a Joint Committee on Corporations, Elections and Political Subdivisions meeting in Thermopolis. “But these guys decided, three weeks before the election, to get involved here and try and influence the outcome of an election. I’m not offering any solutions, but I need to say this is out there. What ticks me off is it puts me in a position as the industry advocate in Wyoming to have to debunk this. Now, I feel when I try to mobilize the people we represent again, we’re going to have this hanging over our head.”
“This could have long-lasting impacts on our reputation,” he added.
With no incumbent in the race, this year’s primary for governor brought with it the unprecedented influence of “dark money,” a term used for the financing of candidates or election communications from hidden or untraceable origins. Throughout the state, anonymous mailers attacked candidate Mark Gordon, the eventual winner. Instagram ads appeared calling gubernatorial hopeful Harriet Hageman a “never Trumper.” Sam Galeotos, another candidate, was also the subject of attacks, with web and radio ads.
The sources of those communications, party leaders say, were investigated, but never found.
On Wednesday, state legislators in Thermopolis chose to take up draft legislation to impose additional requirements for the cause of campaign finance transparency, voting 11-1 (with one excused) to advance the bill to its November meeting.
The draft legislation, while short of offering broad reform to Wyoming campaign finance law, seeks to shore up several loopholes that currently exist, modifying the requirements for filing campaign finance reports and modifying the rules governing political ads and anonymous donations. Phoebe Stoner, executive director of the Equality State Policy Center, said the bill operates under the realities of campaign finance that have grown under the cloud of Citizens United, a landmark campaign finance case in the Supreme Court that, once decided, ushered in a new era of unfettered political spending by corporations and dark sources.
Notable changes proposed include limiting individuals’ ability to donate funds for a general election campaign before the primary is decided, instituting warnings for prosecution of campaign finance violations, and requiring the itemizing of all donations, including the name of the source, for contributions over an amount of $100. (Those under that amount would not need to be itemized to prevent the overburdening of small campaigns.)
The draft legislation also calls for the reporting of all a campaign’s expenses no later than one week before the primary vote, the creation of a searchable database for campaign finance reports, increased transparency of candidates in their electioneering communications (pamphlets, television ads, etc.) and the requirement of all out-of-state committees participating in Wyoming elections to file a list of their funders between one and two weeks before the primary election. (All expenditures made after the report has been filed would be made public within 10 days after the election for those committees.)
“This is about getting the most information they can to voters with the most up-to date and accurate information,” said Stoner.
Though the early reforms address a number of urgent loopholes in the state’s campaign finance law, Stoner said there are some additional reforms the state could pursue to improve the integrity of its elections. They include instituting a rolling reporting system for candidates, which would request candidates add amendments to their pre-election reports to reflect the new donations their campaigns may have received in the final days of the race, set at a suggested $250 threshold to capture larger donations. Other suggestions are a little more high-level: because a big, competitive election occurred this year, Stoner said there was a heightened awareness of third-party mail distributed throughout the state that currently is protected under Citizens United. Some states, she said, have found ways to overcome this, introducing state-level rules like sponsored identification (i.e. the listing of a political action committee’s top-five donors).
Of course, after reforms are implemented, the challenge to enforce those state laws becomes paramount. Taking a vested interest early, in the midst of a contentious election, could be the perfect time to test how groups are now taking advantage of the system, laying a road map for how to enforce the law in the future, Stoner said.
“Enforcement is hard,” she said. “Because we’re in the middle of a cycle right now, this is an opportunity to track the progress of that enforcement, to track who is following the law and what isn’t. To analyze what is breaking down in our current system. Once you have that, you can figure out what type of enforcement might work.”
The suggested reforms may have some oversights that need correcting at the next meeting of the committee in November. Steve Klein, an attorney representing the free market lobbyist organization Wyoming Liberty Group, said that implementing a number of measures in the bill would complicate campaign finance and serve to prohibit people from participating in politics.
“Adding filing requirements will not solve the so-called ‘problem’ of anonymous speech, nor will it counter ‘dark money,’” he wrote in a letter to committee leadership. “It will simply make it harder for citizens without money to afford attorneys or accountants to enter the political arena without substantial risk of prosecution for violating a lengthy yet vague speech regulation.”
At the meeting, Klein pointed to an area of campaign finance law around candidates coordinating with outside political action committees to fund campaign communications – like political advertisements – they could not afford under the umbrellas of their own campaign committees. As the law is written, outside groups who might clearly be supporting one candidate over another would be limited by the maximum contribution amount of $2,500 in this situation: completely inadequate in an era where airtime is expensive.
Klein also challenged the unanticipated costs of the bill, which has not yet been evaluated by the Legislative Service Office. He said if campaign finance laws are put in place, they need to have teeth, and so far he has seen little proof that anyone in the state, so far, has expressed substantial concern with the status quo.
“We’re talking about this loophole, that there’s allegations that significant money is coming into campaigns during that time,” Klein argued. “Why aren’t there any studies showing how much money actually is being spent? You can measure how much money is coming in, but it seems like nobody is studying this. Nobody is using the disclosures we actually have.”
“If the pundits aren’t going to do it,” he added. “Do you think that the public is going to care enough to look over campaign finance reports?”
This sentiment was corroborated by Sen. Cale Case, who – while voting to move the bill — said that if Wyomingites actually cared about people violating the law, news organizations would be writing about it and “making noise” about specific candidates breaking campaign finance law. (Note: Several news organizations – including the Star-Tribune — have written and editorialized about the issue.)
“It seems to me like people aren’t as interested in it as you or I are,” Case said, addressing Stoner.
Correction: A previous version of this article said Sam Galeotos was targeted by direct mail ads -- the focus was actually online ads.