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Buying In Bulk

In states that allow citizen initiatives on the ballot, the petition and campaign process is a big business for consultants, especially in off years. Look no farther than my home state of Washington, where wholesaler Costco has crushed the record for most money spent on a political campaign in the state.

Costco is backing an initiative that would allow private retail stores to sell liquor. The measure would mean big bucks for the Issaquah-based corporation, and they're investing heavily in the race. So far, Costco has spent nearly $20 million on their side of the initiative, according to campaign finance numbers crunched today by The Oregonian's Jeff Mapes.

Opponents of the measure have raised and spent about $11.4 million so far, making the race far and away the most expensive ever run in Washington State.

It's part of an ongoing trend in which the price of a ballot initiative is spiking dramatically. States that allow ballot initiatives require a certain number of signatures to get on the ballot, and backers of the various measures are willing to pay for those signatures. Going rates these days can be as high as $5 for a valid signature in an initiative-heavy state like California.

That means there's an entire sub-industry of professional signature gatherers who spend their time, usually on the West Coast, standing outside high-traffic areas (like, say, Costco) asking voters to sign papers.

And here's an irony: Costco's CEO, Jim Sinegal, is one of the biggest donors to Democratic causes in Washington State. But his company is using Winner & Mandabach, a Republican firm specializing in ballot initiatives based in California, to run the race.

If you're a political consultant in these rough economic times, you could do a lot worse than getting into the initiative business.

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