Campaigns & Elections

Conservatives hold spending advantage on ballot question messaging

The Pennsylvania State Capitol

The Pennsylvania State Capitol Jon Bilous/Shutterstock

With two major constitutional changes left up to voters to decide on this week, conservative organizations drastically outspent progressives in independent efforts to influence voters ahead of the May 18 primary election.

Two conservative organizations — the Commonwealth Foundation and Americans For Prosperity — spent a combined $150,000 on efforts to encourage voters to approve the two constitutional changes, which would place limitations on a governor’s ability to issue and renew emergency declarations.

The money, which was reported to the Pennsylvania Department of State as independent expenditures, went toward television ads, printing costs and canvassing efforts, according to campaign finance filings. 

The Harrisburg-based Commonwealth Foundation spent $100,000 on television ads to encourage voters to approve the constitutional amendments, while Americans For Prosperity, an organization linked to the Koch Brothers, has spent at least $50,000 on efforts to encourage a “yes” vote on the ballot questions, including on canvassing operations, social media advertisements and other materials.

Americans For Prosperity also developed a website titled “Final Say PA” that features testimonials from Pennsylvanians on the state’s COVID-19 response, as well as videos with state legislative officials discussing the proposed constitutional amendments. 

According to the Department of State’s list of independent expenditures, no organizations, as of Tuesday afternoon, were listed as having made independent expenditures opposing the emergency declaration ballot questions. 

The two ballot questions would place a 21-day limit on gubernatorial emergency declarations, require legislative approval of any extensions to said emergency declarations and allow the General Assembly to terminate an emergency declaration without needing the governor’s signature. 

Proponents of the constitutional changes, including Republican lawmakers in the General Assembly, say the proposed amendments would help bolster the legislature’s involvement in emergency responses and limit the ability of governors to abuse broad executive powers granted to them when the state is under an emergency declaration. 

Democrats, including Gov. Tom Wolf, say that that the ballot questions, if approved, could hamstring the ability of future administrations to respond to an emergency. 

Nathan Benefield, vice president and COO at the Commonwealth Foundation, told City & State that the Commonwealth Foundation’s TV ads were part of an effort to educate voters about the ballot questions and what they would do if approved. 

“This is about, for us, about our beliefs and evidence that we can do a better job of protecting lives and livelihoods by having a collaborative process and having better checks and balances between the branches,” Benefield said.

Other organizations, such as the Pennsylvania Democratic Party, also spent money attempting to influence voters on the ballot questions. In the months leading up to the primary, the Pennsylvania Democratic Party spent between $3,500 and $4,500 on Facebook ads about the ballot questions, though the ads aren’t listed as independent expenditures on the Department of State’s website.

A spokesperson for the Department of State told City & State that Facebook ads paid for by political parties and committees are likely included in the party’s regular campaign finance report and not independent expenditure reports. The Pennsylvania Democratic Party reported spending over $637,000 on a variety of expenses from March 30 to May 3, though the party’s campaign finance reports don’t indicate whether any of that spending was related to the ballot questions.

In terms of the spending disparity on independent expenditures between conservative and liberal organizations, J.J. Abbott, a former aide to Wolf who is currently the executive director of Commonwealth Communications, said the gap is likely attributed to the infrastructure built by conservative organizations in Pennsylvania over the past few decades.

“The spending disparity shows how the conservative movement, over a series of decades and with millions of dollars from corporate and, sort of, big money backers, has built this infrastructure that's in place solely to essentially try to undermine both governments and anything that's deemed progressive or Democratic,” Abbott said.

Abbott also said conservative messages surrounding the ballot questions have been misleading, and that the conservative money behind the independent expenditures could prove beneficial to those who wanted to see the constitutional amendments approved.

“It definitely is concerning,” Abbott said. “I think the spending could definitely tilt things in their direction, and [if] you look at sort of the content of that, they clearly have a strategy of trying to target more likely liberal voters with somewhat confusing messages about what the amendments do.”

But to Benefield, who supports the constitutional changes proposed in the ballot questions, he views the spending disparity differently. 

“I can't speak for other groups, I know we've seen the administration have plenty to say, both from the way they worded the questions — which I think was was biased and misleading — to having lots of press conferences talking about bad things that would happen, even though many other states have these provisions,” he said. “But I haven't seen much from outside the administration, so maybe it's the case that nobody actually opposes these amendments, outside of Governor Wolf himself.”