Political tensions are heating up as Delaware barrels toward Election Day 2020. The Democratic Party is hoping to expand their majority in the General Assembly, while Republicans are turning to outside financing in a desperate attempt to hold on to their shrinking minority.
In the latest skirmish between the state’s two major parties, the Delaware Democratic Party has filed a complaint with the Department of Elections alleging illegal coordination between a well-financed political action committee and the reelection campaigns of three Republican state senators.
As was first reported by Delaware State News, A Better Delaware PAC paid for $180,000 in political advertising that “all went to support the campaigns of Cathy Cloutier, Anthony Delcollo and Dave Lawson,” with each lawmaker receiving as many as eight mail pieces and two digital ad campaigns that linked back to the candidates’ websites, which the Democratic Party claims is evidence of coordination. In the days following the complaint, the PAC has directed an additional $200,000 toward cable media and direct mail advertising.
Although Election Commissioner Anthony Albence determined there was “no evidence” of any actions that were “contrary to the law,” according to a letter dated October 16 that has been acquired by Delaware Call, questions remain about the influence PACs will hold over lawmakers who depend on those same groups to fund competitive reelection campaigns.
ANOMALIES IN CAMPAIGN SPENDING
The PAC under scrutiny, formed earlier this year by the “non-partisan public policy and political advocacy organization” A Better Delaware, which was itself formed last year by Chris Kenny, president and CEO of the Kenny Family Shoprites, and DuPont Country Club co-owner Ben DuPont.
As previously reported by The Delaware Call, since 2019, the Kenny family and their umbrella of companies and political organizations have contributed nearly $500,000 to three PACs closely aligned with the Delaware Republican Party. They gave $45,000 to the K3C PAC, which supports Kent County Republicans, $100,000 to state Senator Colin Bonini’s Responsible Delaware PAC, and $250,000 to A Better Delaware PAC.
Campaign finance reports filed with the Department of Elections indicate that Kenny’s cash has been a lifeboat for Republicans who have struggled to raise the amount of funds that are typically needed to run competitive campaigns. Despite being incumbents, the three state Senators named in the complaint have collectively raised less than $80,000, or about one-quarter of the total amount spent in support of the candidates by A Better Delaware PAC.
The Democratic Party’s complaint alleges that, with so little cash on hand, these candidates are now “beholden” to A Better Delaware, and that this arrangement constitutes “coordination or direction” that is not permitted under Delaware law.
“These Republicans are willfully skirting campaign finance laws by knowingly outsourcing their campaign communications to A Better Delaware PAC,” said Delaware Democratic Party Chair Erik Raser-Schramm in a press release. “The fact that these campaigns are doing virtually no political advertising of their own indicates they knew that assistance would be coming from a dark money entity like A Better Delaware, and it raises questions about what kind of influence the campaigns had over that messaging.”
In reply to the Democratic Party complaint, Commissioner Albence explained that his office had asked A Better Delaware PAC to “provide a sworn affidavit responding to [the Democratic Party’s] illegal coordination allegation,” and that in her affidavit, the PAC’s executive director Zoe Callaway stated “under oath that none of the candidates at issue requested or suggested” support from the PAC, nor did the PAC “consult with any of the candidates about the ads, and that the PAC did not work in cooperation or concert with any of the candidates to create, produce or distribute the ads.”
Neither Senators Cloutier nor Delcollo responded to multiple requests for comment. State Senator Lawson replied, “I have not had any connection or communications with A Better Delaware.”
Speaking to The Delaware Call, Delaware Democratic Party Executive Director Jesse Chadderdon says the decision by the Department of Elections shows just how high the bar has been set when it comes to proving coordination between candidates and third-party groups.
“This opinion by the Election Commissioner acknowledged that anomalies in campaign spending and independent expenditures does not constitute coordination because they went to the PAC in question and asked them to pinky swear that they didn’t do it,” says Chadderdon.
Chadderdon acknowledged that large amounts of independent expenditures have benefited Democratic candidates in the past, most notably during the 2017 special election, when an outside group spent nearly $400,000 to support Stephanie Hansen, who won the election and tipped the balance of power in the state Senate. But the difference, claims Chadderdon, is that the Hansen campaign also raised hundreds of thousands of dollars and did not “outsource their communications to a third party.”
When asked for comment, A Better Delaware executive director Callaway replied, “ABD PAC abides by all rules and regulations, and are engaging in the exact same free speech activities that many similar groups that support Democratic candidates have engaged in and continue to engage in to this day. Their complaint is totally frivolous and wildly hypocritical.”
The timing of the complaint could hardly be more appropriate for GOP mega-donor Chris Kenny, who just days earlier penned an editorial for Town Square Live (formerly Town Square Delaware) in which he offered a justification for spending large amounts of cash in state elections.
“When did money equate to influence in politics? How did money become so intricately involved in politics? Has it always been this way?” Kenny asks. “The answer that may be surprising to some is quite actually, yes.”
Kenny goes on to state how George Washington and Abraham Lincoln both depended on “funding from wealthy donors to win the presidency,” with the former supposedly purchasing alcohol for voters and the latter relying on donations from large businesses to fund a tough reelection campaign in 1864. The Delaware Call has not verified the veracity of Kenny’s historical accounts.
“When capital is pushing disingenuous, false claims is when we should be concerned,” writes Kenny. “But when truth and facts are promoted, however, that’s our democracy at its healthiest.”