As we explored in our article covering the early Primary election results, independent expenditures, or IEs, are a very effective way to move an organization’s political agenda forward. However, we did not explore what an IE is, or how it can be effective. This article will do exactly that – we will define independent expenditure, give you several examples of IEs and show how they can be effective campaign tools by following one organization’s IE activity.
An independent expenditure is a political communication that explicitly conveys support or opposition for a candidate or ballot measure. Additionally, this communication must be in no way coordinated with the candidate or campaign it supports or opposes. This is the most important distinction – the two campaigns (the entity making the expenditure and the entity receiving the benefit/opposition of that expenditure) cannot work in concert regarding the communication. The term “independent” in “independent expenditure” is indicative of this separation.
For instance, advertisements that show a candidate in a negative light are almost always IEs run by supporters of that candidate’s opponent. For example, in 2014 the race for California Governor was largely between incumbent Jerry Brown and challenger Neel Kashkari. If you heard an ad on the radio, or saw one on TV, showing Governor Brown in a negative light, it was likely run by a campaign supporting Kashkari, but not funded by Kashkari’s campaign. The opposite is also true – if you saw an ad that showed Kashkari in a positive light, it was most likely paid for by an entity supporting him, but not run by his campaign.
Organizations large and small across the country participate in political activities that are categorized as independent expenditures. In California, IEs directed toward statewide candidates, candidates running for state legislative office and statewide ballot measures are tracked closely by the Fair Political Practices Commission. At the federal level, IEs are reported to the Federal Election Commission.
In the California state primary this year, the ACSA Political Affairs team followed one organization’s IE activity in order to learn from its overall strategy. The California Charter Schools Association (CCSA), and its affiliate the California Charter Schools Association Advocates (CCSAA), spent more than $5.4 million on independent expenditures in the California state primary. This included participating in state Assembly races and several school board races around the state. For our purposes, we will focus on the larger, Assembly races.
In Assembly District 30 (ACSA Region 10) CCSA supported Anna Caballero (D) with more than $900K in positive independent expenditures. While both Caballero and her opponent, Karina Cervantez Alejo, will move into the General Election in November, Caballero swept the primary with almost 45% of the total vote, with Alejo earning just 25.5%. CCSAA spent about $19K on its negative campaign against Alejo. In this particular race, the top two vote-getters were both democrats, together earning over 70% of total votes cast. The difference between the two is that Caballero has been an asset to education in her personal life, through her non-profit, and professional life, through her prior work in the Legislature. She lists supporting public education among her top three priorities, whereas Alejo does not.
In Assembly District 43 (ACSA Region 15) eight candidates registered for the Primary election. Of those eight, five candidates were Democrats. CCSA supported Laura Friedman (D) with more than $1 million in independent expenditures and opposed Ardy Kassakhian (D) with more than $335K in IEs as well. CCSA spent heavily in this race for a couple of reasons. While both candidates listed above claim education in their top priorities, Kassakhian is distinctly more labor friendly than Friedman. Kassakhian is endorsed by CTA, CFT, CSEA and many other labor groups, and also includes increasing the minimum wage in his platform. While charter schools sometimes have unionized employees, more often than not CCSA and its affiliates are on the opposite side of labor in both education policy and political endorsements. Dissimilarly, Friedman is a moderate democrat, listing the importance of both large and small businesses in her platform, making her distinctly more charter school friendly. Therefore, supporting Friedman, who won with just 32% of the vote, was an obvious choice for CCSA, especially considering the number of candidates in this race. In the end, CCSA was successful in their effort to move Friedman into the General.
Finally, in Assembly District 27 (ACSA Region 8), CCSA spent another $1.5 million in support of Madison Nguyen (D) and almost $35K in oppositional IEs against Ash Kalra (D). In a field of six candidates, five of whom were Democrats, CCSA was again very specific when it came to choosing a candidate whose ideals aligned with their own. Nguyen ended up with 34.5% of the vote and Kalra with 19%, which allowed both of them to advance to the General. Nguyen served on the San Jose City Council for 9 years, giving her ample time to show her political and policy preferences. With very few labor and several business endorsements, Nguyen is the kind of moderate Democrat CCSA is interested in getting elected to office. On the other end of the spectrum, Kalra is a former teacher and current faculty member of Lincoln Law of San Jose – making him a less than ideal candidate for CCSA to partner with due to his familiarity with labor. Again, when the field comes down to two Democrats, CCSA has shown they will choose the more moderate and business-friendly candidate over the labor-friendly candidate.
There are several things we can glean from this information. The political and policy perspectives of the California Charter Schools Association are aligned with candidates (on both sides of the aisle) who value K-12 public education, understand the economic impact of business on education and, more often than not, identify with management over labor. By using resources to support candidates with similar ideals as its members throughout the election, it is likely that the legislative members who are elected will have congruent values with CCSA. This is extremely helpful when trying to move a piece of legislation through the Capitol, which is one of the building blocks of effective advocacy. Overall, CCSA, and its affiliated entities, were successful in moving all eight of the candidates they supported from the Primary Election into the General Election. As we get closer to the General Election in November, the ACSA Political Affairs team will continue to follow the independent expenditure activity of CCSA and other similar organizations.