Sunday, November 23, 2014

The man who made himself the third major player in the race wouldn't mind if candidates had more control

By Cheyene Miller
University of Kentucky School of Journalism and Telecommunications

Scott Jennings, a man who has benefited greatly from the new era of campaign finance, says he wouldn’t mind going back to the old system, when candidates had the power.

Scott Jennings (Courier-Journal photo)
The former political director for Sen. Mitch McConnell ran two organizations that aired one of every seven television commercials in McConnell’s recent race with Democrat Alison Lundergan Grimes, delivering a one-two combination that made him the third major player.

But he told a University of Kentucky journalism class the covered the race that he would prefer a system where candidates had more control over paid messages than they do now.

“The system, as it has evolved since I first started in politics, now offers outside groups the opportunity to speak as much or more than candidates in some cases because of the contribution limits placed on campaigns,” Jennings elaborated in an email after speaking to the class.

“The current system almost guarantees that a significant amount of money will be spent in major elections on behalf of candidates who cannot legally control the message generated by that spending. I think democracy is more vibrant when people are free to speak in elections; I just think it's kind of silly that candidates themselves – the people brave enough to put their names on the ballot – can’t influence some of the messages that will ultimately be delivered to their benefit.”

Jennings’s two groups, the Kentucky Opportunity Coalition and Kentuckians for Strong Leadership, spent at least $20 million in the Senate race, more than Grimes reported raising. 

He pointed out that this was the first campaign for a federal office in Kentucky since the 2010 Citizens United ruling, which gave corporations and unions the right to make unlimited campaign contributions.

He said the 2014 Senate race was comparable to the 2012 presidential election, in which each candidate had both a campaign committee and an affiliated “super PAC,” an independent political action committee that cannot legally coordinate with the campaign, but can raise and spend unlimited sums of money from both individuals and corporations on behalf of that candidate.

The exact amount Jennings spent is unknown because the Kentucky Opportunity Coalition is a social welfare organization, which under 501(c)(4) of the Internal Revenue Code cannot spend its money primarily on politics.  

Jennings said most of  the KOC’s money was spent on "issue ads," which don't call for viewers to vote one way or another and thus aren’t considered political.

As a 501(c)(4) organization, KOC does not have to reveal its donors, but Jennings said the vast majority of its money came from out of state. That was also the case with Kentuckians for Strong Leadership, which is registered under Section 527 of the tax code and does reveal its contributors.

The two biggest players for Grimes were the Senate Majority PAC, affiliated with Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, and the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, which spent a combined total of $7,830,234, according to the Center for Responsive Politics’ compilation (at of reports filed with the Federal Election Commission.  Jennings noted that out-of-state political operatives ran both committees.

"Combined, they got to roughly what Kentuckians for Strong Leadership spent,” Jennings said. According to, KSL spent $6,409,617 on the race.

Grimes benefited from $1.34 million in labor-union spending, but it was fragmented, which Jennings said is one of the problems with outside spending. "It can become extremely ineffective," he said.

Jennings said that nationally, Democrats were more successful raising super PAC money. However, Jennings successfully played the role of third major player in the Kentucky race, Grimes campaign manager Jonathan Hurst told the journalism class this week.

Hurst said that while McConnell was focusing on defeating Tea Party-backed Matt Bevin in the Republican primary, the Grimes campaign had to deal with attacks from Jennings and his organizations, who were already pounding the idea of Grimes being President Obama’s Kentucky candidate. 

In Jennings, McConnell “had an ally, a third-party ally that could then come in and deal with us as he dealt with Bevin,” Hurst said. “It played a major part in the race.”

Jennings was so influential in the race that the Kentucky Opportunity Coalition became the focus of an Oct. 29 report from the Center for Public Integrity, a nonprofit, nonpartisan investigative news organization in Washington, D.C. It said “No other group has had a larger footprint in Kentucky's U.S. Senate race.”

Jennings said the campaign-finance landscape has changed greatly since his first campaign in 2000, and “I'm sure legislators and courts will wrestle with these questions again in the near future. For political operatives like me, you just play by the rules as they exist in any particular election.”

He added, “I strongly support the right of anyone to donate to political candidates and organizations. And I think it's a good thing when we have a free flowing marketplace of ideas.”

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