Time to let the light shine on ‘dark money’

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What excites many voters about the end of the primary election is that, starting Wednesday, they could flip on their TV, computer or radio and open their mailbox or newspaper without running into some campaign ad. (At least until we get closer to November.)

Many Wyoming folks are especially relieved to no longer worry about stumbling across one of those nasty negative attack ads. We all know the type: The disfavored candidate is often assigned some insulting nickname, then a narrator or bold type twists something the candidate has said or done just enough to get the voter’s blood boiling. (Dramatic music or a deep voice helps.)

Wyoming saw plenty of negative ads this campaign cycle, with many targeting the Republican candidates for governor and even targeting a local Park County Commission candidate.

When they’re based in facts — and they often aren’t — negative ads can actually be effective at drawing contrasts and pointing out shortcomings. But they’re also a double-edged sword: When you go after one of your opponents, you risk losing the many voters who dislike candidates “going negative” and you risk starting a cycle of mudslinging.

Gubernatorial candidate Harriet Hageman created a website solely devoted to attacking Mark Gordon and Sam Galeotos as “wrong for Wyoming” and it appeared to raise plenty of hackles across the state.

Meanwhile, U.S. Sen. John Barrasso’s campaign hired someone to impersonate and mock his leading challenger in the Republican primary, Dave Dodson, in a radio spot. Dodson may have started the negativity, but given the overwhelming support our junior senator enjoys, the sophomoric tactic was unnecessary.

That said, we give Hageman and Barrasso credit for putting their mouth where their money was: The two candidates made it clear that they were behind the negative campaigning. They stood by their words, and in today’s political environment, that’s commendable.

As this primary election cycle made clear, it’s becoming ever more popular for the politically active to launch their attacks anonymously, hiding behind faceless, shadowy organizations that generally hide everything about their motives, leaders and donors.

One such group, called Protecting Our Constitution, sent out thousands of mailers blasting Gordon, claiming he was too liberal for Wyoming. Another group, Independent Republicans of Wyoming, urged moderates to vote for Gordon and took out Facebook ads calling Foster Friess a “swamp monster.”

Wyoming voters will likely never know who was behind the attacks — and we think that’s wrong.

State Rep. Dan Zwonitzer, R-Cheyenne, is calling on his fellow lawmakers to take action against so-called “dark money” in Wyoming politics.

“It’s only going to get worse from here,” Zwonitzer recently told the Casper Star-Tribune. “We need to get some baseline laws in now.”

Some see the issue as the amount of money in politics, and to be sure, it’s troubling that it now apparently takes well over $1 million to be elected governor of Wyoming. But we see transparency as the bigger issue. While monetary contributions to a campaign or cause may be a form of free speech, we reject the idea that someone be allowed to secretly pour a small fortune into boosting or sabotaging a campaign. If someone gives, say, $450,000 to a candidate, voters should know so they can decide what to make of it (because the money was funneled through a so-called Super PAC we know that happened in the governor’s race). It’s alarming to think that a wealthy benefactor or detractor could make or break a candidate without voters ever knowing their name or motivations.

Money does have its limits — and there’s no evidence that “dark money” flipped the results of any of Tuesday’s races. However, dollars can make a real difference, particularly when a race is close.

That’s why we hope state lawmakers take a look at tightening up Wyoming’s campaign finance laws to crack down on dark money. Sunshine, as they say, is the best disinfectant.

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