Alaskans were left in the dark as money poured into elections last year. Now, that’s changing.

A voting sign at Anchorage’s Hanshew Middle School the morning of Election Day last year. (Jeff Chen/Alaska Public Media)

Two weeks before the November election, attack ads started showing up on Facebook targeting independent and Democratic state legislative candidates.

“Calvin Schrage is no independent,” said one of the ads, referring to the independent candidate for a House seat representing the Anchorage Hillside. “He is a typical liberal Democrat.”

A screenshot of a Facebook advertisement showing a hand with an ace of spades playing card, and text above the image that reads "Stephen Trimble is not an independent. He is a typical AOC liberal. Say no to liberal democrats on Novemeber 3rd."
An ad attacking independent Anchorage state House candidate Stephen Trimble came from the Council on Good Government. Most of the Council on Good Government’s money came from the Republican State Leadership Committee, whose largest Alaska donor in the lead-up to last year’s election was telecommunications company GCI. (Facebook)

The group paying for the ads, the Council on Good Government, received nearly all of the $380,000 it raised from a single group: the Washington, DC-based Republican State Leadership Committee. But only after votes were counted did the RSLC have to reveal the sources of the $8.5 million in its own contributions collected in the month before Election Day.

When the RSLC did file that report with the IRS, it showed just one large Alaska donor: GCI. The Anchorage telecommunications giant gave the RSLC $100,000 in early October — one day before the group reported transferring $75,000 to the Council on Good Government.

The donation came as a shock to some political observers.

“You’re kidding,” said Amber Lee, who managed the campaigns of two candidates targeted by the Council on Good Government. “Wow.”

GCI’s $100,000 contribution was significant on the scale of Alaska politics, as most legislative candidates raise less than that much over the course of their entire campaigns. But it was far from unique. Groups on both sides of last year’s battle for control of the state Legislature spent substantial amounts of money from entities that don’t disclose their donors before the election — or at all.

But starting this year, that practice will be banned. A citizens initiative approved in November requires groups trying to influence the election of candidates to disclose the “true source” of all their donations greater than $2,000.

“Getting this information from IRS tax documents in February, for money that was spent to influence Alaska voters in a November-of-last-year election, does nothing for voters,” said Shea Siegert, who managed the successful initiative campaign. “That is the problem that Ballot Measure 2 aimed to fix.”

The RSLC supports GOP legislative candidates across the country, and GCI, in a statement, said that its contribution to the organization was not earmarked for any specific campaign.

GCI donates to the RSLC “in support of their work, both within the state of Alaska and across the country, advocating for candidates who support businesses like GCI and who promote strong economic policy,” spokeswoman Heather Handyside wrote in an email.

“We have elected to support the RSLC directly as an organization with a history of effectively participating in elections,” Handyside said.

The Council on Good Government — the Alaska-based group that attacked independent and Democratic candidates — collected a total of more than $300,000 from the RSLC over the course of last year, with the money coming in several installments that included the $75,000 the day after GCI’s donation.

RSLC also gave $150,000 to Defend Alaska Elections last year. That’s the group that unsuccessfully fought to defeat the ballot initiative requiring, among many other elements, more donor disclosure. Defend Alaska Elections also received $45,000 from GCI directly, plus $50,000 from two top GCI executives.

The Council on Good Government backed GOP legislative candidates in five Anchorage state House races, plus a Fairbanks Senate race, according to its campaign finance reports.

The group backed three winning Republican candidates: Fairbanks Sen. Robb Myers, who defeated independent Marna Sanford, Anchorage Rep. David Nelson, who beat Democrat Lyn Franks; and Anchorage Rep. Sara Rasmussen, who beat independent Stephen Trimble.

A Facebook advertisement that reads "Liz Snyder will drown working Alaskans in taxes to fund her liberal agenda. Say no to income taxes. Say no to Liz Snyder."
An ad attacking Democratic Anchorage state House candidate Liz Snyder came from the Council on Good Government. (Facebook)

The group also backed three losing Republicans: former Anchorage Rep. Lance Pruitt, who lost to Democrat Liz Snyder; former Anchorage Rep. Mel Gillis, who lost to Schrage, the independent; and Kathy Henslee, who lost to incumbent Anchorage Rep. Chris Tuck.

Among the Council on Good Government’s ads were radio spots that praised Pruitt as “one of the most respected members of the Legislature” and said Snyder supported “government-run health care” and an income tax — even though Snyder refused to endorse an income tax during a campaign debate.

Other ads on Facebook branded independent candidates Schrage and Trimble as a “typical liberal Democrat” and a “fake independent liberal,” respectively.

Lee, who managed Trimble’s and Snyder’s campaigns, said the lack of information about the attack ads’ funders made it harder for the candidates to respond at the time.

“Any information you have changes, to some extent, what kind of research you’re doing and what kind of tactics you’re using,” she said.

The RSLC wasn’t the only large donor to Alaska campaigns whose supporters remained undisclosed through the election, however.

Progressive organizations that don’t reveal their donors also made five- and six-figure donations to groups backing Democratic and independent candidates. And because those organizations are organized differently, they don’t report their donors either to the state or the IRS.

A Facebook ad attacking former East Anchorage GOP Rep. Lance Pruitt was paid for by a group called Defend Alaska. Defend Alaska collected large donations from multiple groups that don’t disclose their donors. (Facebook)

Defend Alaska, which raised $500,000 to support progressive candidates last year, collected $150,000 from the Washington, DC-based nonprofit Sixteen Thirty Fund. The fund does not disclose the identity of its contributors, and Politico once described it as being “fueled by massive anonymous donations, including one gift totaling $51.7 million.”

Defend Alaska also collected $50,000 from the Alaska Progressive Donor Table, an Anchorage-based nonprofit. Kay Brown, a former executive director of the Alaska Democratic Party listed as one of the donor table’s officers, declined to immediately release information about its donors.

Barbara Blake, Defend Alaska’s chair, referred questions about the group’s donors to the donors themselves, though she noted that Defend Alaska began as a grassroots effort.

In future state elections, the newly-approved ballot measure will force groups to disclose more information about their donors.

Siegert, the initiative’s campaign manager, said the new rules should give Alaskans “real-time” information about groups that are trying to affect candidates’ campaigns inside the state. Disclosures of donations and contributions will be required within 24 hours.

“Those people have a reason for contributing to campaigns, and voters having the information of who’s donating really gives them the ability to make their own decisions on why those contributors are contributing to a certain candidate,” Siegert said. “Voters can only research the information that’s publicly available — they can make speculations as to the rest, but if we don’t have laws and regulations as to the rest that make this information public, it puts voters at a disadvantage.”

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