In coming weeks, political action committees will meet to decide which Wyoming candidates to support.
Since state law currently has no caps on spending by political action committees, or PACs, most candidates are seeking their funds.
“The Realtors have always been aware of their friends in public office, and we have always had a pretty healthy political action committee,” said Laurie Urbigkit, government affairs director for the Wyoming Realtors Association, which has already endorsed Gov. Matt Mead with a $5,000 check and will endorse a secretary of state candidate soon.
But PACs aren’t the only means for sweeping in large sums of cash.
Candidates can self-fund and seek donations from individuals. They can receive money from their parties after the primary election.
Additionally, a 2010 U.S. Supreme Court case could increase money in Wyoming races.
The primary election is Aug. 19. The general election is Nov. 4.
When the 2,000-member Wyoming Association of Realtors chooses which candidates to endorse, it considers their views on private property rights, Urbigkit said.
But after all, Wyoming is ranching and cowboy country. All candidates support private property rights. So the Realtors also consider other facets of the candidates — electability, accessibility and demeanor, Urbigkit said.
The early endorsement of Mead for governor was due to the Realtors’ previous positive working relationship with him.
PAC members interviewed the four Republican candidates for secretary of state, she said.
The PAC for the Petroleum Association of Wyoming usually saves its endorsements for the general election, said Bruce Hinchey, president of the association.
“We may support some individuals in the Senate or the House in the primary,” he said. “But we don’t do it on a statewide basis for the five elected.”
The top five elected positions in Wyoming are governor, secretary of state, treasurer, auditor and superintendent of public instruction.
“We just kind of give money to those who have supported our industry or are business-friendly,” he said.
The Wyoming Stock Growers Association PAC will soon give the first round of contributions for the primary, said Jim Magagna, the association’s executive vice president.
The 1,200-member association’s PAC already endorsed Mead with a $1,000 contribution. But the PAC focuses most of its contributions on legislative races, Magagna said.
The PAC often gives a small contribution to legislative incumbents who have no challengers “just as a way to show our gratitude for what they’ve done in the past,” he said.
In cases of new candidates, the association relies on word-of-mouth from members who live in the areas the candidates come from, he said.
When considering candidates, a committee that oversees the PAC discusses whether the candidate is ag friendly and open to hearing the association’s position on issues, Magagna said.
Mead, a Republican, contributed more than half of the money his campaign raised in 2010. He funded $1.2 million of nearly $2 million total.
This election, self-funding will scale back, he said.
“If people want to support us in the election, we’re going to ask them for their help,” he said.
Mead doesn’t expect to spend as much as last time, in part because he doesn’t have the time to campaign as he did in 2010. He started his 2010 campaign with 3 percent name recognition, he said.
Mead has a PAC that raises money for his campaign, he said.
Democratic gubernatorial candidate Pete Gosar cannot compete with Mead’s money.
“I don’t have the type of money to self-fund,” he said. “As a working-class person, you can’t reach into your pocketbook and pull out a million dollars.”
He has fundraising goals and expenses based on those goals. It’s a hustle every day, he said.
PAC money is an obstacle for Democrats in Wyoming. But in general, he thinks there’s too much money in politics.
“I think it serves to confuse folks,” he said. “I think it really does serve to distract from issues and the issues that really need to be talked about.”
Republican Ed Buchanan, who ran for the Wyoming Legislature in 2010, did not self-fund, aside from paying the Wyoming secretary of state’s filing fee to get on the ballot. He was unopposed, living in Torrington, which is small and rural. The cost of campaigning is cheaper than even a legislative race from Cheyenne or Casper, he said,
This year, he’s running for secretary of state, a costlier race.
“In a crowded statewide race where competition for financial contributions is fierce, there becomes a clear advantage for those with great wealth unless the other candidates can find large donors to even the field,” he said. “Money can be used to mask lack of message and experience by simply saturating the public with signage and commercials.
"At the end of the day, however, one has to work hard, deliver their message and believe that voters can discern the difference.”
Buchanan was referring to Republican secretary of state candidate Ed Murray, a Cheyenne developer, investor and entrepreneur who has been running television and radio commercials even before Mead, who is running for the state’s top position.
“Ed Murray is committed to running a positive statewide campaign that focuses on issues, not personal attacks,” said Murray’s campaign manager, Bill Novotny.
Novotny declined to discuss specifics of campaign strategy or budget. The campaign is focusing on raising money from individuals. The campaign is not actively seeking PAC money, Novotny said.
Republican secretary of state candidate Clark Stith says he will have skin in the game — by spending his own money. The amount is to be determined. He hasn’t yet received any PAC contributions but would be open to them.
“I believe candidates and voters and donors should be able to exercise their First Amendment free speech rights by contributing to the candidates of their choice,” he said. “I believe candidates should be able to spend their money in efforts to further get their message across. If a person pays for a microphone, I think they should be able to use it.”
Wyoming campaigns traditionally have been low-budget, said University of Wyoming history professor Phil Roberts.
In 2010, the U.S. Supreme Court decided in the Citizens United v. Federal Elections Commission case that a new area of contributions was allowed that are not individual donors, self-funders or PACs. Roberts fears it could be troubling.
The funders are corporations or labor unions. But they work independent of candidates, said Pete Quist, research director for Helena, Montana-based Followthemoney.org.
They can spend money on campaigns as long as they are independent of candidates. Candidates are not allowed to collaborate on their spending. Their ads or mailers can be in support or opposition of a candidate or issue. That has created new organizations to funnel money into elections, he said.
Wyoming law didn’t change to comply with the Citizens United decision until the 2012 election. At that time, only one group, the National Association of Realtors, filed what the state calls an Independent Expenditures Report: $7,320.68 on mailings in the race of Sen. Charlie Scott, R-Casper, according to the Wyoming Secretary of State's Office.
Candidates and most PACs the Star-Tribune spoke to don’t expect any outside money to be used in 2012 in the way that the Citizens United case permits.
The exception is the Wyoming Association of Realtors. Urbigkit said the Wyoming organization sends money to the national association because it has expertise and resources Wyoming, a small state, does not.
“I would anticipate that we very well may” spend money for independent political activities," she said. “I don’t have a final answer on that yet. We do believe it’s a good way to let people know who our friends are. You will never see a negative (mailing or ad.) It will always be positive.”