Spending By Outside Political Groups Pays Off (Mostly) in State Primary Races

Sep 14, 2016

Special interest groups spent nearly half a million dollars on the primary races for governor and state Legislature that ended Tuesday, led by a nonprofit social-welfare organization with ties to a prominent Concord lobbying firm.

Save the Children Action Network invested almost $400,000 in two candidates for governor, including Colin Van Ostern, the Democratic primary winner. The so-called 501(c)4, which advocates for early childhood education and does not disclose its donors, helped Republican Jeannie Forrester, who finished fourth in the Republican gubernatorial primary, as well.

The group divvied up $240,000 for direct mail and $108,000 for digital ads between Van Ostern and Forrester. It also spent $50,000 on a poll for internal use by Save the Children Action Network.

Special interest groups spent nearly $500,000 on various state primary races this year, with the biggest spending coming in the race for governor.
Credit NHPR

Another independent group, NH Priorities, a super PAC formed two years ago by a major donor to the University of New Hampshire, helped Dan Innis and two other Republicans win their state Senate primaries. The PAC spent $42,000 on mailers, phone calls and digital ads, about half  of that on behalf of Innis in the District 24 Republican primary. 

The District 24 seat, vacated by retiring Republican Nancy Stiles, is considered important to the party's ability to maintain its Senate majority in a wide open election year. The NH Priorities PAC also had a role in the District 18 GOP primary race, backing Ross Terrio's victory over George Lambert by just a handful of votes. 

Donors not disclosed

NH Priorities is funded by Peter T. Paul, who made tens of millions of dollars brokering mortgages during the pre-recession housing boom. The group spent $425,000 of Paul's money on Innis's unsuccessful 2014 primary campaign in the 1st Congressional District.

Innis, former dean of UNH's business school which bears Paul's name, entered the Congressional race again in 2016, but dropped out in March, citing work and family commitments. He jumped into the District 24 race two months later and won the four-man contest Tuesday with 35 percent of the vote. 

Unlike a super PAC, a 501(C)4 like Save the Children Action Network can use federal tax law to keep its sources of funding secret. The nonprofit is headquartered in Washington, D.C. Its New Hampshire political operation shares a Concord address with Dennehy & Bouley, a government relations firm whose team of lobbyists earned more than $1 million in fees representing dozens of companies, professional associations and other interests before lawmakers in 2015. 

The firm's principles are Mike Dennehy, a Republican consultant, and Concord Mayor Jim Bouley, a Democrat. Dennehy's consulting company, The Dennehy Group, was paid $29,000 by Forrester's campaign. Bouley endorsed Van Ostern's for governor and was a contributor to his campaign.

The close nexus of partisan campaign supporters with an independent political group prompted a complaint by Manchester radio host Rich Girard. He wants the New Hampshire attorney general to investigate coordination between the campaigns and Save the Children Action Network, which is illegal under state election law.

"This is a frivolous complaint without merit," said Brendan Daly, senior communications director for the group. "SCAN has followed all of New Hampshire's campaign finance laws and will contiue to do so."*

Impact of money still unclear

Whether Save the Children Action Network continues to support Van Ostern in the general election remains to be seen. 

But he's almost certain to benefit from spending by the same labor and special interest groups that pumped $11 million into Maggie Hassan's re-election in 2012, the last time there was no incumbent in the governor's race. 

Already, the New Hampshire Democratic Party is poised to spend $2.2 million on more than 1,200 broadcast television ads, scheduled to begin next week. That tally could rise substantially once the Democratic Governor's Association begins pouring money into the race. The PAC spent nearly $8 million on TV ads in the state in 2012.

On the Republican side, nominee Chris Sununu, will be welcomed with a more than $2 million ad buy from the Live Free PAC, the New Hampshire arm of the Republican Governor's Association. 

The RGA also spent $8 million in 2012, on behalf of Republican gubernatorial candidate Ovide Lamontagne.

*This story was updated to include information and comment from Save the Children Action Network.