A newly formed dark money group has started running ads in Franklin County to benefit a pair of Franklin County House hopefuls aligned with one of the prime candidates to become House speaker in January.
Hardworking Ohioans Inc., a for-profit corporation created one month ago, is taking advantage of the lack of contribution limits and required disclosure in the post-Citizens United world, collecting and spending unlimited donations with no requirement to make them public.
The corporation has reserved about $410,000 of TV time in Franklin County, currently using it for an ad attacking Democrats Beth Liston and Mary Lightbody, who are running in the 21st and 19th Ohio House districts. They are vying against Republicans Stu Harris and Tim Barhorst, candidates who are working with a campaign operation run by Rep. Larry Householder, R-Glenford.
Neither Harris nor Barhorst are mentioned in the ad.
Householder wants to unseat Speaker Ryan Smith and reclaim the House leadership post he held from 2001-04. As part of that effort he has been assisting more than a dozen candidates with their election, while Smith has been operating with other candidates through the more traditional GOP caucus campaign team known as OHROC.
For months, the prevailing speculation was that Householder would utilize either PACs or other independent expenditure groups to help fund television ads for his candidates — in addition to the money he has helped those candidates raise from groups including trade unions and the coal and electricity industries.
Hardworking Ohioans, which sounds similar to the Hardworking Americans Committee that spent more than $500,000 in the spring to help Householder win re-election, is run by The Batchelder Company, a Capitol Square lobbying and consulting firm co-founded by former House GOP senior staffers Chad Hawley and Troy Judy.
The Franklin County ad is the first, but not the last that the group plans to run in the final two weeks before the election.
Asked if group plans to focus on helping Householder candidates, Hawley said, "All I can say is we're looking at competitive races around the state, which is what we've always done in the past to either get back the majority or keep the majority.
"The leadership vote doesn't happen until after the election. Nobody gets to vote if they don't have 50 (members) to start with."
Donald Brey, an election lawyer working with the corporation, said Ohio law doesn't limit or require disclosure of contributions or expenditures, so long as it involves non-federal candidates inside the state.
The Ohio Elections Commission issued an advisory opinion in 2010 following the Citizens United ruling that said the high court ruling now allows corporate money to be spent on elections, so long as there are no direct contributions to or coordination with candidates or political parties.
"While there is no specific obligation currently in Ohio law, the commission would encourage any corporation that desires to involve itself in the partisan political arena ... to file a statement that reflects this activity with the appropriate filing office."
Hardworking Ohioans does not appear to be planning to voluntarily disclose its spending or donors.
"We will file everything that we're required by law to submit," Hawley said.
The Democratic candidates under fire in the ad are not pleased about an outside corporation getting involved in their races.
"Stu Harris promised civility in politics. Instead we get this," said Liston, who said she will continue to focus on health care and education issues.
Lightbody said she wants the campaign to focus on candidate qualifications, "not these messages that stoke up fear through vitriol."
"Out of respect for the voters, I am determined to prevent dark money from buying the election."