An outside observer watching the Iowa House and Senate races would have trouble telling the Republican candidates apart. No matter which district you live in, the Republican candidate is using the same talking points in media interviews, campaign ads, or direct mail. They point to deficits that don't exist, heated sidewalks that don't exist, and so-called reckless borrowing that hasn't created any jobs (a big distortion of the I-JOBS program). Republicans blast supposedly out-of-control spending, even though growth in expenditures on business tax credits "far exceeds general fund spending growth" in Iowa. They claim the local Democrat has "forced" large property tax increases, even though economists have debunked that claim, as "dozens of factors" affect property tax rates. Those include local bond issues and changes related to Iowa's "rollback" calculation.
Sandy Greiner, GOP candidate in Iowa Senate district 45, sounds indistinguishable from other Republicans. At her campaign website and in her her radio advertising, she claims state government is "spending too much." Like many other GOP candidates, she asserts (wrongly), "The last four budgets passed by the legislature have been the largest in the state's history." Greiner herself voted for the fiscal year 2007 budget, the last one approved by a Republican-controlled legislature in Iowa. That budget provided for greater general fund spending than the current-year budget.
Greiner is unique among Republican candidates in one respect, however. No one else leads a group that's raising and spending more in undisclosed political donations than all candidates will spend in all of Iowa's 125 legislative races combined.
Greiner is president of the American Future Fund, a 501(c)4 group that does not disclose its donors and is one of the biggest campaign spenders nationally. Nick Ryan, who has longstanding ties to the 501(c)4 group and currently chairs its board, has said the group will spend about $20 million to $25 million on this year's elections.
Greiner didn't mention her American Future Fund connection when announcing her state Senate campaign. Her official bio downplays her involvement in the group, which is described as a "national group advocating for free market ideas and legislation." But most of the American Future Fund's spending is election-related, coming in the form of advertising, direct mail, or robocalls targeting Democratic incumbents. During the 2008 election cycle, the group spent about $8 million to help or hurt candidates. The bulk of the spending occurred outside Iowa, although the group ran commercials in several Iowa House districts.
This chart shows where the American Future Fund has disclosed spending money in 2010. Most of the spending is attempting to influence U.S. House races in other states, but the group is spending roughly a million dollars against Representative Bruce Braley in Iowa's first Congressional district. Braley is making the attacks from secret donors a big campaign issue. He recently visited 4225 Fleur Drive in Des Moines, the registered address for the American Future Fund, which turns out to be a mailbox at a UPS store.
The American Future Fund's big spending and lack of disclosure have attracted national attention. The Politico's Ben Smith poked fun at Greiner for taking federal farm subsidies even as she heads a group that bashes federal spending.
I'm more concerned about the prospect of a state legislator who owes favors to a secret network of donors. Iowa has no limits on campaign contributions for state candidates, but all donations must be disclosed. The idea is that it's sufficient for the public to know who bankrolled each official's campaign.
Greiner's leadership role in a secret political fundraising operation raises obvious conflict-of-interest problems. As board president, she must know where the American Future Fund's money comes from, even if journalists and her constituents do not. If Greiner is elected to the Iowa Senate, she'll be in a position to support legislation that benefits certain individuals or corporations. The public will have no way to know whether she's returning a favor to someone who's been generous to the American Future Fund. Iowa law has long prohibited corporate donations directly to candidates, but corporations can donate to 501(c)4 groups like the American Future Fund.
As of this summer, Greiner's largest campaign donor was her American Future Fund comrade-in-arms Nick Ryan. He gave Citizens to Elect Greiner $955 in March, $955 in April , $955 in June and $955 in July. (Iowa candidates will file new financial disclosure forms later this month.) Who knows what kind of favors Ryan will want to call in if Greiner wins the election?
We don't even know how much Greiner personally profits from her position at the American Future Fund. She took on that role after retiring from the Iowa House. All the personal financial disclosure reports Greiner filed when she served in the legislature list her as a self-employed farmer.
The Des Moines Register has noticed the AFF's activity but (to my knowledge) hasn't expressed any concerns about Greiner's role in running such a large and secretive political organization. Nor am I aware of Iowa Public Radio or local media in the district raising this issue. Given the magnitude of the fund's spending to influence elections, I'm surprised Greiner hasn't faced more questions about it.
Greiner has always been a corporate-friendly politician. State Senator Becky Schmitz, whom Greiner is challenging in Iowa Senate district 45, sometimes notes on the campaign trail that when Greiner chaired the Iowa House Environmental Protection Committee, people used to call it "the environmental degradation committee." But if Greiner returns to elected office, Iowa will for the first time have a state legislator who moonlights at a political hit squad that won't say where its money comes from. Any Iowan concerned about transparency and potential corruption should be worried.